Project Practitioners > The Leverage of Language

The Leverage of Language

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


Everyone knows words have power. They can be said to hurt, manipulate, encourage, empower, and so on.

The power of ‘I’ shows accountability and responsibility. In project management, RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) charts are used to designate decision making authorities. Team responsibility is an emphasis but so are individual responsibilities. The word ‘I’ denotes the speaker is accountable for whatever comes next.

As a leader, project managers should take on most of the burdens. Fair or not, it comes down to who is at the top. Head coaches, despite players making mistakes or uncontrollable events occurring, take responsibility for a loss and give credit for the victory.

A project manager may need to manipulate at times. Politics is part of the game and unavoidable. Convincing your team of change is a form of manipulation. How you speak about the change influences the way your team thinks about it. If you are strong and direct in your words, the change has more plausibility. Talking indirectly and confusingly only leads to frustration and the implementation process being more difficult.

Not only what you say but also how you say it gives language power. Rambling on and on losses a crowd. In Composition class, a teacher marks up a paper that is wordy. He or she wants you to write a run on sentence in fewer words. Silence is more powerful than rambling. Think of the next time you deliver a message to your team in a meeting. If you find yourself rambling or not having anything to say, embrace a silent moment.

With the idea of leverage, I have adopted four fulcrum points of language from National Football League Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. Known for his no-nonsense approach to coaching, he took a 2-14 team and won a Super Bowl three years later. This worst-to-first story shows Walsh’s ability to connect with players and get them to perform at a high level.

Project managers have to save projects at times. Teams get down in the dumps. Senior leaders apply more pressure and stress to the situation. A project manager must keep both parties happy while working with an owner that may have different needs and wants. This balancing act requires expert communication skills, hence the importance of using your leverage of language.

Here are the four fulcrum points of language:


  1. A supportive approach

A supportive approach works better than a constantly negative or downside-focused approach. Morale of a group where nothing is ever good enough becomes nonexistent. If you constantly let people know their work is not good enough, the effort put into said work starts to plummet. Why try if it is just going to be edited to an unrecognizable state?

Avoid creating a chain of negatives. There will be times when you get down on you, your team, and your project. The key is to bounce back. Stringing negatives together creates a downward spiral where everything is bleak, and success is not celebrated. The people in your organization have the talent. Otherwise, they would not have been hired. Find the bright spots amid the darkness. It is easy to point out what is wrong. Every once in a while, mix it up. Be positive. Break the streak of nothing is going right.


  1. The sandwich approach

The sandwich approach looks like this: compliment-criticism-compliment. This technique is a classic human resources move. I am immediately skeptical when someone leads with a compliment then the word ‘but’ follows.

I hear it all of the time. This operator is a really nice person and gets along with everybody, but he is always late to work and performs a subpar job. She comes to work on time and gets her work done but people cannot seem to work with her, and she is a lone wolf.

Feedback situations are where this technique is best suited. When you have a team member who is mostly good yet needs to work on a few things to become better. This person gets things done on time, however, has a few misspellings or edits that need to be made, but overall does very nice work. This sprinkling in of criticism can help ease the ego, and also force you to think of positives. Again, the negatives are often easier to come up with because leaders focus on improvement.


  1. Never breakdown without building up

We are all human after all. Be cognizant of when you may be breaking someone too much to the point of no return. Encouragement after a grueling day can mean the world to someone and want them coming back for more.

We have all been a part of projects that required overtime and weekends to complete on time. After a 60- or 70-hour work week, a ‘good job’ can mean the world. ‘Thanks for all of your work’ is an email that can be sent in seconds but has an impact far greater.

Think of a muscle. To get bigger and stronger, it must be broken down first. The key is the building back up part otherwise you atrophy and become a vegetable. Break down to build up.


  1. Make your feedback present

When delivering feedback, make it present. Focusing on the past can bring up emotions that are not necessary for the conversation at hand. Keep it local, and the issue will not get out of hand.

If someone is showing improvement, do not revert to the days when they were worse. Whatever that situation was has nothing to do with the current situation. Memories can be shaky. You might remember the situation vastly different than another person.

In retrospect, you should have broken down and already built up by the time this current issue arises. Now, it is time to break down again and then build back up. Keep the focus on being better and what you can do now rather than hindsight being 20/20.



‘Stick and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ This classic grade school comeback has never made sense to me. If words did not hurt, then why is this comeback necessary? Of course, words hurt. They have power.

Use this leverage and power to your advantage. With power comes great responsibility. Like a comic book character, you can use this power for good or evil. Be the hero and not the villain.

Support your team and organization in times of need. Deliver criticism constructively. If you need to break down an individual, do not forget to build them up. Lastly, be present. What is done is done. Focus on the road ahead.

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