More and more I find myself working with people at all levels within organisations, helping them to gain insight and understanding into how powerful, both the spoken word, and the language we use are in shaping perceptions, feelings, behaviour and expectations.

Everything we say to others and hear (including our own inner dialogue), contribute to how we feel about other people and ourselves, and also the behavioural decisions we subsequently make – often without being consciously aware of these effects at all! Without realising what we are doing, we can create conditions that lead to ourselves and others living up or down to our and others expectations. More frequently than we realise, we also shape other people’s perceptions of individuals they have sometimes not even met.

Some personal examples for me are firstly in my own family: My eldest daughter grew very quickly as a young child and as a result was quite clumsy due to frequent changes in reach and height. Before we had even fully realised, we had started to joke: “oh, here comes our clumsy Clara”. She thought this was quite funny and began to regard and describe herself in the same manner – even beyond the growth phase she continued to be, clumsy! Once this self-perception had developed I suddenly noticed that she was in fact ‘making us happy’ by living up (or down) to our expectations of her – without being consciously aware of it, she had internalised the same expectation! Needless to say, plenty of work was undertaken to undo this accidental damage we had caused to her self-belief system (and I in turn felt incredibly bad as a parent!).

The second example is of something I first became aware of when I was a young manager working in Retail. During the obligatory hand-over’ meetings when a member of management switched branches, there would be a review of the team members that the new manager was going to be responsible for. These meetings regularly resulted in other people being advised of who was great, who was good, who was average and who was below average in their contribution and general performance – often with a lack evidence to back up the positive comments, but plenty of evidence to support the negative! Unsurprisingly, people were usually very pleased by how accurate and insightful these comments were – mainly because once we have formulated a perception of someone or something, we look for confirmation to support this perception, we don’t consciously seek evidence that may disprove it! When I became aware of this and refused to take any commentary on the teams I was taking over, both in retail, and later in Insurance and construction businesses, it was not surprising that on many occasions the previous managers were surprised by the ‘turn around’ in peoples’ performance!

My final example comes from when I was appointed as the Director of Training for an Insurance company. Very shortly after I began, the Customer Service Director approached and instructed me to dismiss one of my Senior Managers (who was their Learning and Development Business Partner), due to them not being competent enough for the role they currently held. I refused as I had never even met the person (they were on Maternity Leave when I joined) and met with the Director to discuss the issues that had led to them making such a decision. I was surprised to learn that they too had not met the person in question either, they were acting upon hearsay that had shaped their opinions – yet despite this they were vehement in their commentary about the individual concerned. It was an epiphany for them when this was reflected back! The Senior Manager concerned turned out to be one of the best operational learning and development managers I have ever had the pleasure of working with (as was the CSD) and this view was also echoed by the Customer Service Director as soon as they had the opportunity of working with them!

This issue can be incredibly damaging in organisations and society in general. It directly influences peoples’ sense of self-worth, relationships, performance, engagement, attitudes, decisions and life choices. If I have a personal ‘grail’ to chase, it is that people start to be more consciously aware of their behaviour and use of language – understanding that their behaviour has significant consequences; and, are they prepared to accept this and take responsibility for how they might affect others!?