language + context + delivery = meaning

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
George Orwell

Want versus Need: An observation in the impact of language.

Financial Context

In an economic or financial context, there is a clear difference between want and need. Think about the last time you were creating a financial plan for your business or personal budget. There are usually at least two (often three) columns on your spreadsheet. One column represents your ‘have to have’ expenditures like rent/mortgage, utilities, healthcare, salaries, and marketing (personal budgets:  food.)  The second column contains the more flexible and more questioned expenditures such as business entertaining, (sadly) training and development, and software upgrades (personal budgets: dining out.) There may even be a third column entitled ‘nice to haves’ that include such items as the latest electronic gadgets for the sales force, or that great off-sight leadership development event (personal budgets:  those awesome shoes and suit that would look great for that big presentation next month.) Somehow it’s easy to categories these expenditures between the need and want categories and when you communicate these columns to others, the meaning is clear.

Team Dynamics Context

But what about when we use the words need and want in the context of requesting actions from our team members? Can you use the same definitions? Is need still that ‘can’t survive without’ item or task? Is want something that is ‘nice to have’? Clearly context changes the meanings of words and that context is filtered by our individual worldviews. For those with a financial tilt, the meaning does not change, but for those of other views, the meaning may indeed change. What is intriguing to me was the appearance of another factor beyond context that I observed.

Language + Context + Delivery

I observed both in person and virtual communications between team members. When the team leader made a request of a team member and used the word ‘need’ such as “I need that report you are working on by Friday,” the leader was perceived as being pressured from another source, as being powerless, as ‘just the messenger.’  When the same leader asked her team to complete the report saying  “I want to have this completed by Friday” she was perceived as owning the deadline and as being in more control and responsible. The factor which added the additional layer of complexity was that of  tone of voice and the confidence level of the person making the request.

Language, context, and delivery are the three factors that impact how these messages are received, how the receiver interprets the meaning, and how the team members are motivated to act. The question that is still on my mind is: What came first, the leader’s language or her confidence?