I may be stepping into a minefield here…

I was having coffee with a friend who was about to leave her position as Chief Human Resource Officer. We were talking about all the changes we’re seeing in organizations these days. Being very familiar with my work, particularly my diagnostic, she cautioned me that the language used by leaders needs to change too.

And then she told me about “micro aggressions”, and how what may seem like simple, pat phrases may actually cause offense. For example, questions like “Where are you from?”  or “What school did you go to?”– which may seem pretty innocuous – could imply that the recipient doesn’t belong here.

I’ll confess I felt some initial resistance. I thought of all the times I’ve asked those very questions. I pointed to the importance of knowing the context in which those questions are asked.

But the more she spoke, the more I realized I had better learn more about micro aggressions, and be able to identify the words and phrases that may unintentionally cause harm. Not knowing could impede the ability of leaders to speak so that others listen, understand and respond. Leaders can’t engage and mobilize others to help ignite significant change if they inadvertently use words or phrases that cause others to disengage or recoil.

It would rarely be intentional, of course. But as you know, you can do harm even when that’s not your intention.

So I’ve been interviewing experts in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (+ Belonging) field to identify any phrases or words that could offend others or be perceived as exclusionary.

And herein may lie at least part of the minefield.

With very few exceptions, most of those I’ve spoken with were pretty vague about the language piece of ensuring best practices. That kind of surprised me, as language certainly matters, especially to leaders. And there is, thankfully, a lot of work being done within organizations to ensure greater diversity and foster that important sense of inclusion and belonging.

But which words convey that, and which ones don’t, is far from definitive. And all the cross-cultural communication research I’ve done tells me it likely never will be. Language evolves – within even one culture, let alone across many different cultures.

I am the first to admit I am not the embodiment of diversity. But I am a woman, and throughout my career, I have seen beliefs, attitudes and values around women in the workplace evolve.

And that in itself has changed the language used with and about women. You only have to watch one episode of “Mad Men” to be thankful for that change.

As society evolves, so too must our language. The same words and phrases you’ve always used can suddenly have different meanings. What was once accepted, if not acceptable, to say may no longer be.

There’s more than enough involved in expressing yourself as leader as it is. The very thought of now having to navigate potential landmines of language is probably the last thing you need.

And you’re right.

But there’s always risk in “what we don’t know we don’t know”.

What inevitably happens when we begin to know what we did not know is that what was invisible to us becomes visible. And that can be rather painful.

That’s exactly what happened to me recently.

I was having a conversation with a dear friend who originates from the Congo. He was telling me how Switzerland is in trouble for violating certain Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) practices. And I, having been raised with a positive image of Switzerland falsely based on its perceived neutrality during World War II, said to him,

“Switzerland sure isn’t “lily-white” anymore, is it?”

He agreed, and the conversation moved on.

As I drove back to my office, I realized that in using the term “lily-white”, I was unconsciously equating being white with purity and integrity.

And I was horrified at the realization that I may have offended him.

He was gracious enough not to reveal any offense.

He’s the kind of man who would be more concerned about my knowing I had offended him than in telling me I had. And sadly, it may also be that he’s too accustomed to offense, intentional and unintentional, to react.

If causing offense or exclusion unwittingly is not your intention, as it was not mine, then it’s incumbent on all of us to re-examine our language.

It’s not about censorship. Or being inauthentic. Or constantly having to worry about offending someone.

It is about recognizing that there are now words and phrases that can unintentionally undermine your leadership capability. Every time you speak, you have an opportunity to unify those listening into one cohesive collective that can help ignite what is significant to your leadership.

You may not be able to avoid offending those who take offense at everything. But you can avoid offending many by ridding your language of those words and phrases whose changed meanings no longer serve your leadership intent.

As I learn more about what words leaders should no longer use, I’ll share.

And if you can help by sharing those words and phrases you’ve detected, please comment below.

We can’t let not knowing impede someone’s leadership. Because igniting significant change is just too important.