Words matter! Yes they do




How people perceive us and our ideas are coloured by what we say and how they align with our actions and intent. Most of us do not have ill intent. We do not mean to be as abrupt, contemptuous, aloof, or condescending, but at times, and usually, when the stakes are high, we are.

Words can align us with our intended audience, or they can repel people quickly and permanently. The choice of words can seem benign and correct in your mind, but to your audience, they can grate and create situations where people tune out and ignore you completely.

Let’s take a favourite (and I use this tongue-in-cheek) phrase of mine . . . HUMAN CAPITAL.

This phrase has become embraced both within the C-Suite and Human Resources circles. 

The conventional thought by those who use it, is that they are trying to convey the importance of the people that work for them.

The challenge is that the same people utilising this phrase are perceived as condescending and derogatory by those they are trying to praise, thereby creating a “us vs. them” mentality throughout the organisation that is not helpful to anyone.


  • We are not CAPITAL. We are not CHATTEL. We are instead HUMAN BEINGS.
  • We all act, think, and react differently. We all have different hopes, wants, fears, needs and desires.
  • We all want to be listened to, understood and valued.

The challenge is that the term HUMAN CAPITAL exudes none of this. It makes people think of themselves as one of many, interchangeable like LEGO and dispensable on a whim. If you disagree with that, ask the twelve-thousand people who were recently let go from Google through an email one morning and the realisation that their passwords and sign-on credentials no longer work.

Some of these people were on maternity leave, others were in the hospital, and others now have sixty days to find another job or be deported because the visa they have held working for Google for the last decade, is no longer valid.

If organisations truly treated people like HUMAN CAPITAL (as the C-suite would like to define it), antiseptic layoffs would never have been carried out. People would have been laid off humanely, empathetically and with dignity.

The question is, how does the rest of the workforce at Google feel? Are they grateful to have jobs, or are they waiting for the other shoe to drop? My guess is the latter because they believe they are expendable, interchangeable, under-valued, and HUMAN CAPITAL.

We need to choose our words to match our actions and our intent. A mismatch creates uncertainty, mistrust and disengagement. Alignment creates an effective connection, a feeling of belonging, trust and engagement.  

As people and as organisations, it is our choice. How do we want to perceive and treat our clients, prospects, employees and vendors, and how do we want them to view us?

My advice is to be mindful of your language and where, when and how you employ it.  

  • Does it align with the cultural values you are trying to create? 
  • Does it resonate positively with the people you are trying to influence?
  • Does it drive people towards common goals or drive them away?

The world is continually changing; what works today may not have worked yesterday or tomorrow. Our job is to be aware of changes, embrace them, stay curious about them and communicate effectively and relevantly through them.