The Perhaps Surprising Influence Nouns Have on Behavior

Communicating well often equates to more desirable outcomes. While I myself often preach that it’s not what you say but how you say it, words have meaning. And by meaning, I don’t just mean a definition. Words have an impact. They affect how we see ourselves, how others see us, our identity, and our perception of our place in this world. As profound as that might sound (ha ha), it’s quite simple. Humans want to see themselves in a positive light, create favorable impressions and ultimately, belong to a desirable group. For instance, would you rather (I know, that sounds like the beginning of a popular party game), be known as a slacker or a contributor? For those of you who chose the former, you can stop reading this now. 

So how can we as individuals, supervisors, managers, leaders, etc., help promote desirable behaviors and improve outcomes in the workplace? You can start by turning verbs into nouns; actions into identities. Rather than telling an employee you want them to innovate. Ask them to be an innovator.

Unbeknownst to him, my father did this exceptionally well. I grew up on a farm. As you might imagine, the chores and responsibilities were relentless. Like most kids, I was not always eager to pitch in and help. Rather than say “Liz, help me clean stalls, feed the animals, mow the grass, sweep the barn, etc.”, he would say things like, “Liz, will you be my helper?” or “Liz, you are such a good helper, will you….?” Quite pleased with myself, I would do my chores without complaint (or at least not as much). This, for better or worse, identified me as a helper, something stable and permanent, and led me to believe this was a good thing. A positive attribute. Part of who I was. Consequently, I saw myself in a positive light. I understood that my dad had a positive impression of me. I belonged to an important group of people – helpers. 

What is the message? Next time you want to encourage or reinforce a desirable behavior, add an ‘er’. Turn action into identities and see how it improves the outcome! Other examples you might use in the workplace include:  

  • Collaborator
  • Communicator
  • Connector
  • Idea generator
  • Leader
  • Listener
  • Problem solver
  • Resolver
  • Top Performer

For more about activating identity, check out Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger. 

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office, Co-editor for Ombuzz

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