Frequently I get questions from my coaching clients regarding feedback they’ve gotten about how the way they talk at work impacts those around them:

The CEO tells me my work is great, but I need to change the way I talk about personal matters (like politics or life) at work. Does he have the right to ask me to change my views/speech? If so, what can I do to be more careful about what I say?

It sounds like your boss isn’t asking you to change your views. What you said he said was “….but that I need to change the way I talk about personal matters…” . (italics mine)

Changing the way you talk about personal matters is not the same as changing your views on personal matters. The CEO may be thinking about your future and what it takes to get ahead at your firm and the kind of speaking that works with your clients or in the firm’s culture. If you think that the CEO doesn’t have a right to talk with you about how you speak at work, or that the way you talk shouldn’t have any bearing on the job you do, just Google ‘CEO’s fired for comments’.

The way we talk – what we say, how we say it, to whom we say it – all matter. As you move up in accountability at your business, what you say becomes even more critical because everything you say not only represents you, but also represents the company. And, as a leader, if you say something that does not represent the company in the light in which they want to be represented you could lose your job.

I’m embarrassed to say that the manner in which I communicated at a conference last week had some very unintended consequences. I forgot what I’ve been coaching leaders in for decades now – every word you utter (and how you utter it) publicly matters. I gave some feedback to someone last week in what I thought was a private conversation, and yes, I was angry at the time. I don’t regret the feedback I gave, nor do I feel differently about it today, but I could have chosen another time for the feedback and I could have calmed myself down before giving it. It is also worth noting that when you are the leader, there is never a “private” conversation (unless it’s with your coach, your therapist or your lawyer. And lately, even those arenas don’t seem protected). That feedback – that I’d given privately – was passed back to me by a fourth party (almost word for word with what I’d actually said), but out of context and therefore now skewed from the original intention. In another incident from that same conference, I heard from someone else who told me I’d said something (which I actually did not say) that was causing this person to want to quit the organization we both belong to. Both of those incidents got cleaned up with the people who were willing to talk to me about them. But what about the people who still have the first incident out of context and the second who believe I said something damaging I never said at all? It wasn’t a great week for being an example of practicing what I preach, but it was a great week of learning for me.

However, the way you speak at work and your public speaking are not big concerns unless you get to that leader level job – and if you are speaking in a way that doesn’t represent leadership or your company’s values appropriately, it’s great that your manager let you know that now (in my view, your manager could have been more specific in exactly how you are talking and what you are saying that he believes is doing the damage).

You might find it helpful to ask your colleagues to give you some feedback and ask them to characterize how they hear you speak about your views. Here’re some ideas for talking to your colleagues about this:

  1. “If you had to describe how I talk about politics and life at work, what would you say”?
  2. “If I were to change how I talk about personal matters, what do you think I could change to be more appropriate about those matters at work”?

Be sure you ask people if they are willing to answer these questions and only ask on breaks or at lunch.

There’s a book out by Robert Kegan (a bit old now, but absolutely relevant) that you might find helpful. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.

Be thoughtful about the future life of things you’ve said. Especially those things you didn’t mean to say, or things that others will take out of context. They tend to live a lot longer than we’d like.