The Language of Employee Engagement

February 25, 2016 by

language of employee engagementStanford professor Bernard Roth says purging two phrases from your vocabulary can make you more successful in work and life. Roth, who is also the Academic Director for Stanford’s Hasso Plattner School of Design, recently released a new book called The Achievement Habit, in which he suggests that a couple of linguistic changes can help you achieve greater success. His suggestions and exercises are in direct parallel with the positive philosophies that are most effective when building employee engagement.

Two of the easiest vocabulary changes are as follows:

1. Replace “but” with “and”

You might say, “I want to go out for dinner, but I have a lot of work to do.”

With Roth’s insightful reasoning, you can now say, “I want to go out for dinner, and I have work to do.”

See the difference? Roth writes, “When you use the word but, you create a conflict for yourself that does not really exist.” Instead, when you use the word and, “your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence.” New and more positive possibilities begin to appear:

“Maybe I can go out for a quick dinner and I can delegate some of the work to others.”

For that matter, “but” is a word that is probably best if eradicated from your vocabulary. During one of my recent engagement workshops, one client manager expressed frustration about her CEO and the way he recognizes people for good work. The CEO would say. “You did a really good job on that, but…” This completely destroys the value and meaningfulness of the original compliment. Given that Recognition is the most impactful driver of engagement, this “but” is a sure-fire way to create disengagement.

2. Change “Have to” to “Want to”

Roth explains that this exercise is very effective in “getting people to realize that what they do in their lives—even the things they find unpleasant—are in fact what they have chosen.

For example, a graduate student might bemoan having to take a class on Corporate Finance, which he finds completely boring. After completing the exercise above, he would quickly realize that he actually wants to take Corporate Finance, since it is a required class for the MBA he so earnestly wants to be awarded.

Roth goes on to explain that both of these exercises are critical elements of a problem-solving strategy called design thinking. When you utilize this type of thinking, you are challenging your default, or automatic thinking, and are now able to see things as they really are. What I like most about these two linguistic adjustments is that they help replace a victimhood mindset with a much more empowering, positive way of thinking.

The reality is that when you use this different language in your work and personal life, you realize that problems are nowhere near as daunting as they once seemed and that you have more control over your life than you previously thought.



Kevin Sheridan is an internationally-recognized Keynote Speaker, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and one of the most sought-after voices in the world on the topic of Employee Engagement. For five years running, he has been honored on Inc. Magazine’s top 100 Leadership Speakers in the world, as well as Inc.’s top 100 experts on Employee Engagement. He was also honored to be named to The Employee Engagement Award’s Top 101 Global Influencers on Employee Engagement of 2017.

Having spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, Kevin has helped some of the world’s largest corporations rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long-overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement. His first book, Building a Magnetic Culture, made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers.

Kevin received a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1988, concentrating his degree in Strategy, Human Resources Management, and Organizational Behavior. He is also a serial entrepreneur, having founded and sold three different companies.