Positive Language For No-Nonsense Managers

Coworkers talking in a meeting

Reading LinkedIn, you might think that the average office is a caring, sharing environment. Everyone adopts a nurturing attitude towards their colleagues. Managers give their staff kind words of encouragement even when they make expensive mistakes.

Perhaps your experience was different? Mine was.

I’ve worked with organizations where positivity and empathy were not among the corporate values.

Encounters with managers in the military, law enforcement, accounting firms, sales teams, and outsourced call centres can be bruising experiences.

So why would anyone tell a Navy chief petty officer, a tax inspector, or a Russian call centre manager that using positive and encouraging language might be a good idea? Why would they believe it?

Positive Language — The Business Case

People talking during a work meeting


Positive language makes working a more pleasant experience.

Staff are more likely to be productive, stay with the company instead of move on, and perhaps even persuade their friends to work there.

The financial benefits of increased productivity are obvious.

Reducing staff turnover means less time and effort spent recruiting and training replacements, and fewer periods of sub-par productivity from partially trained employees.

Most companies have “recommend a friend” schemes. The savings can be substantial. A UK company offers a GBP 1,000 bonus for staff who successfully recruit their friends. Most recruitment firms charge three months’ salary for the same thing. This could easily amount to two or three times the bonus, even for quite junior positions.

The frequent use of negative language has the opposite effect.

Resentful staff have less reason to be productive and so earn less for the company.

Resentful staff are more likely to leave at the first opportunity. HR will need to recruit and train more new hires to replace them. This costs more and has a negative impact on productivity.

Resentful staff are more likely to tell their friends and relatives how bad the company is to work for, so dissuading people from working there.

What Is Positive Language?

Coworkers talk in the office


Positive language need not be sickly sweet. It has four distinct characteristics:

  1. It tells listeners what CAN be done. Negative language focuses on what CANNOT be done.
  2. It offers alternatives, choices, and options. Negative language offers no alternatives, no choices, and no options.
  3. Positive language focuses on the problem to be solved. It looks forward to finding a solution. Negative language focuses on finding someone, usually the listener, to blame.
  4. Positive language helps and encourages people. Negative language does not encourage anyone.

What Does It Take To Speak More Positively?

Managers talk about a project at work


Surprisingly little. Here are some examples of negative phrases people use, and their more positive substitutes.

“You didn’t...”

This looks back to the past. It says what the person didn’t do without offering alternatives. It makes it clear that the fault lies with the listener. Suppose we replace this with “Next time, try...”? This looks forward. It doesn’t point the finger and it gives the listener an alternative course of action.

“You should/must...”

This is very forceful and puts the blame firmly on the listener. How would the listener react to “It would be better if you...” or maybe “We should/must...”? The first option presents an alternative course of action. If the issue is related to legal obligations or safety requirements, then saying “We should/must...” takes away the sting by emphasizing that everyone has to do it.

“You didn’t understand...”

As a trainer, I try to avoid saying this. If my trainee doesn’t understand, then that’s not her fault, it’s my fault. I didn’t present it properly. I prefer to say: “I didn’t tell you properly/clearly enough...”

Linguistic Land Mines!

Employees talk during a work meeting


These phrases are guaranteed to lead to fights and divorce proceedings.

“Yes, but...”

This says: “I have listened to you. It doesn’t matter.” Try replacing the word “but” with “and.” You’ll find that the conversation moves along faster and with less antagonism.

“You should have...”

This focuses on the past and the person’s “mistake.” It shows no respect for the listener and blames him for not having your superior knowledge. A more positive substitute might be: “Next time, try...” That conveys the same message, but looks forward to getting it right in the future.


“Why” questions often sound like accusations. We all remember teachers asking us why we didn’t do our homework. “Why” questions often put people into “excuse giving” mode. They answer the question with excuses rather than properly thought-out root causes. Coaches recommend replacing “Why” with “What...?” transforming the question “Why didn’t you do your homework” into “What prevented you from doing your homework?"

“Calm down!”

Saying this usually has the opposite effect! It tells your listener that you do not care about their emotions. You just want them to stop expressing them. If you really want to help a person become less emotional, try telling him, “I want to help you, I need you to tell me what the problem is.” If the person shouts, it’s more effective if you take them aside and let them vent. Often, once the person has expressed their anger, they can speak more rationally and will apologize for their outbursts.

Next Steps

Think of the conversations you have had recently.

How many negative phrases have you heard? What effect did they have on you?

How many negative phrases have you used yourself? Now that you know more about positive and negative language, how would you conduct these conversations differently?

Once you’ve thought about these questions, get in touch and tell me your thoughts!

Further Reading

When you’re training your staff, your choice of language can have a massive effect on their learning. To find out more about how to train staff, please read my posts “Training for Non-Trainers” and “Explaining How Things Work: How To Do It And Why It Matters.”

Man on laptop enjoys summer while working full time

There you are: sitting on the beach, covered in sunscreen, reading your favorite book, drinking your favorite drink under the cool shade of an umbrella. Life doesn't get any better than this. Suddenly, a door slams, a phone rings, a printer turns on. You jolt back into consciousness. You're at work, sitting in your cubicle, without even a hint of sunshine streaming in from outside.

Read moreShow less