Words matter so much
Words matter so much

Why do words matter so much and why do leaders so often get them wrong?

Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, CEO of Australian telco company, Optus, has spent considerable time explaining a recent major cyberattack in the media (it was reported that 9 million customers cold be potentially affected). Most of her messaging is focused on facts and figures – how many customers had been affected? What do people need to do now?” and so on.

When asked, “How do you feel about this happening under your watch?” Rosmarin replied, “Terrible, a mix of a lot of mixed emotions. I’m angry that there are a lot of people out there that want to do this to our customers. I’m disappointed … I’m disappointed that it undermines all the great work we’ve been doing to be a pioneer in this industry, a real challenger to create new and wonderful experiences for our customers, and I’m very sorry and apologetic for what has happened”.

Except for the last few words, the language is about the harm caused to the business, not to the customers. She did use the word ‘sorry’ but is she ‘sorry’ that it happened to Optus, or ‘sorry’ for the potential hurt to customers?

Conversation and language are integral to everyday life.  Words are the primary tool humans use to express our thoughts and feelings. Why do words matter so much? Why do leaders so often miss the mark? 

My co-author of our new book 'Setting The Tone From The Top: How leaders' shape a positive culture', Melinda Muth commented, "I’m an Optus customer and I’ve now received an email signed by the CEO about the cyberattack.  Instead of being appeased, I’m more annoyed than ever. In part the email read 'It is with great disappointment I’m writing to let you know that Optus has been a victim of a cyberattack that has resulted in the disclosure of some of your personal information . . . We apologise unreservedly and are devastated this could occur'".

"My first thought on reading the email was, 'So it’s all about you . . . you are a disappointed victim. What about me?  And you are devastated this could occur?  Not as devastated as I will be if it occurs that my identity is stolen and my bank account with it!'”

Rather than the usual corporate speak, “We apologise unreservedly and are devastated this could occur”, it would have been nice if the CEO had said, “On behalf of Optus, I am sorry about what has happened, and I realise you are worried about what could occur to you as a result of the cyberattack.” 

Melinda continued, "What explains my reaction? It’s the words.  ‘Apologise’ and ‘sorry’ have two totally different impacts on both a speaker and an audience. ‘Apology’ is a noun – it can be analysed, dissected, debated, argued over – and it goes straight to the reasoning part of the brain.  ‘Sorry’, on the other hand, is an adjective – it can’t be described, analysed or dissected – and it goes straight to the feeling part of the brain”.  Optus has so far failed to make the feeling connection, and without it, customers are likely to become angrier, not less."

Words and language impact the behaviour and feelings of the recipients and the speaker. In the Optus messaging and business conversations we’ve observed, the quality of conversations and their impact on relationships are not valued as highly as they should be. Relationships have been eclipsed by things thought to be more pressing, more immediate, like “making the numbers” and in this case “how much will it cost Optus?”

Leaders need to deeply consider the unintended consequences of what they say on decisions and policies which in turn impact behaviour, relationships and outcomes. As social neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley says, “Conversation is our greatest tool to align minds. We don’t think in a vacuum, but with other people.”

The words we and others close to us use, can affect the culture in which we live and work. The feelings that are evoked through many conversations over time, build to define and frame the culture of our families, our teams, and our organisations.

Leaders who want to embed a culture of trust and integrity in their organisations and with their customers (and all their stakeholders) can do so with every conversation.

Optus, if you want to stem the loss of irritated and angry customers, stop wordsmithing and over-consulting with the legal department and start connecting with how customers are feeling.  Perhaps some banks may have learned that lesson already!

An that's why words matter so much.


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