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Taking the Helm: When leading a team, keep four-letter words at bay

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Communication is, by far, the No. 1 skill of successful leaders. The point of communication is the transmission and reception of information with a focus on understanding.

Unfortunately, some leaders think communication includes shouting, cursing or yelling at their crew members. It’s uncomfortable to watch, let alone to be on the receiving end of such treatment.

Let me be clear: That sort of verbal abuse isn’t communicating; it’s something else entirely. And I’m not talking about a leader who, once in a blue moon, uses swear words or raises his voice out of frustration. My focus here are leaders who use this language style on a regular basis, directed at their crew or co-workers.

Yelling and cursing accomplish nothing except to make the person doing the shouting feel better, usually because it gives them a sense of superiority. The leader may feel good in the heat of the moment while they’re expressing their anger, but the negative impact of their tirade will have a long-lasting effect on the crew. The limited amount of satisfaction derived from berating and belittling a co-worker is never worth weakening a leader’s credibility with the people on their team.

Leaders don’t decide who will follow. Followers – employees, crew members, co-workers, team members, associates – determine if they will follow.

Only through behavior can leaders encourage others to follow. Cursing someone out or shouting at them is the exact opposite of the behavior leaders must display to create loyalty and influence.

When we’re upset or angry, we are more likely to respond in the heat of the moment from a place of emotion rather than rational thought. Successful leaders have learned to control this emotional response. A good example is the image of the unflappable captain in any situation or problem.

There are two ways of swearing to consider: swearing and cursing at a person in a derogatory way; or swearing in general, like when something surprises us and we simply shout out a four-letter word.

Swearing at someone falls into the same category as shouting at people. Don’t do it. Leadership suffers because co-workers feel attacked.

Conversely, using curse words occasionally in trying situations will be seen for what it is – an emotional response – and generally won’t harm a leader in the eyes of followers. Just make sure that blue language is used infrequently.

Leaders who use four-letter words in everyday conversation can turn people off from taking them seriously, thus limiting their potential as a leader.

I recently coached a senior crew member on a large vessel. Let’s call him John. John frequently yelled and swore at his crew. When we first met, he thought nothing of his behavior. Everyone knew it was his “personal style,” he said. John is smart and knows his job, but people didn’t want to be around him because his temperament was unpredictable. His outbursts caused his team to feel bullied.

The crew wouldn’t say anything directly to him about how they felt. Instead, they gossiped and complained among themselves, which, of course, only made things worse.

Here’s the thing: John holds a position of power and authority, but he lacked the personal influence of a real leader. Take away his title and nobody would follow him.

When John examined his behavior from the viewpoint of those on the receiving end, he realized where he had been creating problems for himself. He has started to change his personal style of leadership based on this insight.

I’ve written before how successful leadership is more about learning to stop doing things that push others away than about learning something new. A clear example of this is having John stop raising his voice to communicate and refrain from using expletives to express himself.

We coached John to:

  • Stop and take a few deep breaths before responding.
  • Ask “Is it worth getting upset over,” whatever “it” is?
  • Consider how to get the desired result without belittling someone else.
  • Phrase feedback or criticism without swearing.

Changing behavior is difficult. Only through repeated practice will we have success implementing a new way to behave. I encourage everyone to try, to the best of their ability, to control emotional outbursts.

One of the best ways to succeed when changing behavior is to let others know you are working to be better at a particular behavior. Tell them exactly what you are trying to do, and ask for feedback every three or four weeks. This will put the pressure on to keep change alive and active.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

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