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How Language Can make You a Better Manager

Photo by Daniel Reche

This article was based on episode 051 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

“It’s not what you say but how you say it.” -- Mae West

I generally agree with Mae West, but for Krister Ungerböck, it’s more like, “It’s both what you say and how you say it.”

In Episode 51 of The Modern Manager, Krister Ungerböck shares his learnings about the language of leadership. Krister is a leadership keynote speaker, CEO coach and author of the upcoming book, The Language of Leadership: Words to Transform How We Live, Live and Lead.

According to Krister, managers must understand how to use language to lead. There are ways to speak that are gentle and guiding, and ways that are forceful and direct. If you aren’t thoughtful about your words, you may unintentionally use language that is too weak or too strong which could lead to frustration or a misunderstanding.

For example, explore how these different phrases making the same basic request feel to you:

  • Give me the document.

  • Could you pass the document.

  • Please consider passing the document to me.

Too strong and you’ve emotionally alienated the listener. Too soft and you may not get the behavior you want. Language is critical.


Often times we try to celebrate the best performers in order to motivate others to perform better. Unfortunately, that type of positive reinforcement and celebration generates a sense of competition. When people feel they are competing against one another, especially in a collaborative environment, they stop working together because they want to demonstrate their individual value.

It can also be demotivating because it opens the door for various excuses. “I’m not as fast because I don’t have as much experience,” or “she has the better sales territory,” or “my work is harder because I’m responsible for the most complex situations.”

But, ask Krister discovered, when you make the competition into beating your own personal record and reaching your highest potential, everything changes. Everyone can beat their own record which means everyone can be celebrated from time to time.

In order to do this, create metrics that that can always be increased rather than a percentage. For example, a call center might record and celebrate:

  • Personal best record for number of calls closed in a day

  • Personal best record for number of calls closed in a month

  • Team best record for number of calls closed in a week

Celebrate achievement and encourage each person to reach their fullest potential.


Questions lead, answers follow.

Leading with questions is more efficient than leading with answers and often results in better answers. The key is to ask good questions.

Interesting questions will lead to more interesting answers. Open-ended questions often begin with ‘what’ or ‘how.’ Yes/no questions can shut down the conversation. Try to avoid asking questions that are actually your ideas disguised as questions such as, “have you considered…?”

Open ended questions engage the other participants in the conversation. Krister notes you can actually say very little if you focus on asking questions and letting the other people talk. Even simply reflecting back their remarks as a question can lead to new discoveries. Imagine this:

“The new project is off to a rocky start.” -- “It’s off to a rocky start?”

“Yes, there was a miscommunication about the goal.” -- “Really, there was a miscommunication?”

“Yah, I said we were aiming for 20% but apparently I wasn’t clear about whether that was the total or the change.” -- “ weren’t clear?”


Effective managers are able to connect with their team members and recognize when something or someone is feeling emotionally off. Reading emotions accurately is a skill which can be developed. To do so, Krister suggests guessing at emotions and the need or source of the emotion.

For example:

  • “I’m wondering if you’re frustrated by…because you want more autonomy to make decisions.” (Emotion = frustration. Need = autonomy.)

  • “I’d imagine you’re feeling excluded from…because the team didn’t loop you in at the start of the project.” (Emotion = exclusion. Need = belonging.)

If your guess is correct, the person will reinforce it, but if it’s not, they’ll likely correct you. This gives you more accurate information and helps them articulate their situation. Over time, especially as you work with the same people, you’ll become more adept at reading their emotions and building your emotional intelligence.

Join the Modern Manager community on Patreon and get 4 tools from Krister including a leadership assessment plus episode guides and additional guest bonuses, to support your journey to rockstar manager.

This article was based on episode 051 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.



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