Tone Matters: How a Leader’s Words Influence Good & Bad Behaviors

by | Jan 18, 2021

Tone at the Top Matters: What Tone Are You Setting?

As a manager, what you say and how you say it drastically affects your team. Fix bad behavior and set the tone for office culture by learning from these mistakes.

Daniel was the new boss and he came in like a tornado. One sentence into a briefing and he unleashed criticisms. When we offered explanation, he accused us of being obstructive. We soon learned his leadership tone: criticize loudly, constantly, and publicly. He pulled no punches. He was direct, boisterous, and unrelenting. Within a couple of months, the tone inside the office changed. No longer were we collaborative and cooperative across departments. Now it was every man for himself. Run-and-hide and, if possible, blame a perceived failing on someone else to avoid a verbal lashing by the boss. If Daniel casually mentioned an idea, people scurried to make it happen in hopes of appeasing him. Thankfully, his reign was short-lived and we were able to rescue the office culture before lasting damage was done.

From this experience, I learned three principles:

  • Leaders set the tone.
  • Tone drives behavior.
  • Leaders speak through a megaphone.

Let’s look more closely at each and examine the tone you set.

Leaders set the tone

From a neuroscience perspective, subconsciously we want to feel part of the tribe and feel safe. Aligning with the boss is a fast and easy way to seemingly accomplish both. To not be in alignment with the boss feels risky and less safe. Consequently, we pay attention to leaders’ words and tone. Tone perhaps being the more important of the two because tone conveys feeling. We respond to feeling more easily than to facts. Whether we realize it or not, the brain pays extra attention to the boss. Is she enthusiastic or apathetic? Does she sound supportive or critical?  Am I in her “in-group” or “out-group?”

What tone are you setting? Would your staff describe the tone you set? Supportive, encouraging, collaborative, dog-eat-dog, competitive, combative, impatient? If you don’t know, ask a few people. You might be surprised. What tone do you want in the office? Be intentional. Listen more closely to yourself and consider how your tone may be heard by others. Is the interpretation of your tone in alignment with your intention? If not, make adjustments now.

Tone drives behavior

The leader’s tone and behavior sets free similar behaviors in others. In the case of Daniel, his highly critical, direct assault on people enabled others to vocalize more critically. Soon, the office tone took on an irritable, uncomfortable edge. From a neuroscience perspective, mirror neurons kick in and the brain begins to copy observed behavior of others, particularly of those in charge or who hold power. The leader’s actions are, by definition, acceptable so they must be okay for everyone else, too.

What behavior are you implicitly endorsing? Consider how you behave. Think about what you say and how you say it. If everyone behaved as you do, would the workplace be constructive, destructive or something in between? Whether you like it or not, you are the model, and your behavior will be emulated. As the leader you don’t get to say, “Do what I say, not as I do.” Rather, it’s, “Do what I say and what I do.”

Leaders speak through a megaphone

People hear comments more loudly and emphatically from leaders. I recall a meeting where I casually mentioned an interest in – let’s say, the leaping abilities of a squirrel (Check out this video on leaping squirrels!). A few hours after the meeting ended, my chief of staff stopped by and asked, “Did you intend to launch a study into the leaping abilities of a squirrel?” To my surprise, the staff heard my casual comment as direction. Even the smallest comment comes through a megaphone. People latch on to the words for several reasons

They want to please the boss. The drive to be part of the boss’s in-group is strong. There’s likely at least one staff person who thinks, “I don’t understand why the boss wants to study leaping squirrels, but I’ll jump on it (pun intended) and show her that I’m a can-do person!

What they hear supports their agenda. A staff member may relate to your comment and believe that, at long last, someone else wants to learn about leaping squirrels. She’s off to the races on her pet project that she believes was endorsed.

They believe they’re doing what they’re told. There are always people who blindly do what they are told or do what they think they are told. If the boss said to study leaping squirrels, that’s what we’ll do.

What kind of leader will you be?

As a leader, your staff and others are watching and listening – closely. Your words are important, but tone is equally important (maybe more important). Use “tone at the top” strategically to create the organizational feel that you intend.



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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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