Positive vs. Negative Words

Great leaders inspire and move people. They implement powerful ideas with efficient strategies. Something else? They use the right language to encourage the behavior they want to see.

To most effectively implement a change it is best to encourage employees to “start doing” specific actions rather than reminding them of what they “can’t” do, or should “stop doing.” In fact, the vocabulary with which new directions are communicated can permeate an environment with enthusiasm or with negativity.

Renowned psychologist and lecturer Daniel Goleman, who wrote for The New York Times for many years, says intelligent leaders create positive climates.

“I’ve reviewed much research on workplace climate that shows a more positive emotional atmosphere fosters better performance, and so does positive mood on teams,” says Goleman.

Additionally, says Tim Sanders, former Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo!, “positive leaders are more likely to garner the support of others and receive pay raises and promotions and achieve greater success in the workplace.”

So consider the phrasing in any communications about change and take the advice of author and consultant, Robert Bacal who identified the characteristics of negative and positive phrasing as follows:

Negative phrasing:

  • tells the recipient what cannot be done.
  • has a subtle tone of blame.
  • includes words like can’t, won’t, unable to, that tell the recipient what the sending agency cannot do.
  • does not stress positive actions that would be appropriate, or positive consequences.

Positive phrasing:

  • tells the recipient what can be done.
  • suggests alternatives and choices available to the recipient.
  • sounds helpful and encouraging rather than bureaucratic.
  • stresses positive actions and positive consequences that can be anticipated.


Negativity can potentially increase stress levels and raise doubts about people’s ability to adopt the important new ways of doing things. So watch your words, positivity gets better results.

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