The incredible power that a word has over your behavior

Some unsavory developments have happened at the client site where I took up Account Management for the first time in my career in 1996. I have kept in touch with my clients all these years and I got to hear about these developments directly from my clients. I am totally saddened by what happened. Unfortunately due to confidentiality issues, I can’t write more on this.

These conversations put me in nostalgia mode and brought back one of the key learnings that I had from one of my favorite clients – she calls her style “Subtle Leadership”. This post is a tribute to her.

The time I started at this client site, we were all called “contractors”. Now, this isn’t an unusual practice by itself. Even today external consultants are called contractors or vendors or something like that. The practice had evolved to such an extent that the identity cards were color coded and heck even the email address was tagged with a “c” to denote contractor. All contractors were excluded from team outings, many important meetings etc. Contractors were not given name plates to hang outside the cubicle. It wouldn’t be surprising if as a contractor you felt like an outcast.

It is in this milieu, that my favorite client practiced an entirely different approach. She invited all the contractors to all meetings, team meetings, addressed us as partners and treated us almost like any other employee. Guess what, our employees in this group worked harder, were more productive, came up with more creative ideas, jelled with each other as a team better. She invited our suggestions, implemented many of them.

In short, she got the best work out of us “contractors”. She did all this quietly without tooting her own horn – the hallmark of “subtle leadership”. Creating this sense of belonging, camaraderie and using that to drive better performance is one of the biggest lessons I have learnt in my life and I owe this to my client.

Now to the original subject of this post. Think about how one word Contractor vs. Partner makes such a big difference in performance. It is funny why more companies and leaders don’t understand this simple thing. As it is my fancy these days, I looked at the neuroscience of this. In my research I came across the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which postulated that there is a strong connection between language and your ability to think complex thoughts.

It remained a hypothesis and a hotly debated subject amongst scientists untill the discovery of a tribe in South America that speaks the Piraha Language. It turns out that this tribe has no words in their language for numbers greater than two – they simply use one, two and many. When they were adminstered quantitative ability tests as a part of the research they couldn’t handle numbers greater than two effectively.

It has also been shown now that people who can’t speak and hear are able to do better thinking if they have learnt the sign language. Such is the power of a single word – use them wisely. Have you all had any such experiences that demonstrate the power of langauge?

1. Wikpedia entry for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

2. Wikipedia entry for the Piraha Language


  1. Quote
    Anonymous said October 16, 2007, 12:56 pm:

    Great post Sukumar. I would rate it as one of the best posts I have read on this blog. In hindu tradition, one of the rules for naming a child used to be, ‘what you want him/her to become’. That is why warriors had names like Jayadrath, Arihant ect. Names had such a powerful impact on the personality.

    I read in a book (I don’t recall which one), on how a hotel bought about a culture of treating its guests like royalty. It started addressing its staff as ladies and gentlemen and treated them with respect. They in turn treated the guests like royalty. (I will try to recall the book and post the exact details of the story if I locate it)

  2. Quote
    Anonymous said October 17, 2007, 10:55 am:

    Thanks for the kind words Archana. Interesting point on Hindu names and their impact on personality.

    Would love to read the book you mention. Is it the book about the Marriott hotel chain?

  3. Quote
    Anonymous said October 17, 2007, 9:48 pm:

    Thanks Sukumar. I know it is a recent books that I read. It is about the hotel chain, it was an incident to illustrate how subtle factors make a huge difference to the outcome.

  4. Quote
    Anonymous said October 17, 2007, 10:06 pm:

    I could not remember the book, but I found the name of the hotel, it is Ritz-Carlton. Please see this link for the reviews One ex-employee also writes about their philosophy

    “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”

  5. Quote
    Anonymous said October 17, 2007, 11:27 pm:

    Thanks Archana. I should have guessed Ritz Carlton is one of the best hotel chains in the world known for its customer experience. Thanks for the pointer. -Sukumar

  6. Quote
    Anonymous said October 18, 2007, 12:24 pm:


    Extending this logic, can we conclude the language has some influence over the thinking mode of a people. For example, the word “Dharma” is so common & implicit for our people, but a foreigner could not comprehend this one.

    Similarly, the word “Yoga” .. we are familiar with this word, and related one like “Yogi’ etc.

    The language affects the thought process, and way of thinking.

    I observed this, when i found a post completely in tamil explaining Unicode concepts in our internal blog. The understanding was plain, and casual. Then i immediately searched a wikipedia page and read that page in english.

    It made a difference. No matter, how far we are proficient in english, our inner mind, always understands our mother tongue faster than acquired language.

  7. Quote
    Anonymous said October 18, 2007, 9:50 pm:

    Thanks Senthil. I don’t know what you mean by thinking mode? Could you please explain?

    As the post above shows language affects thinking and in turn affects the actions you take.

    Neuroscience research shows (I need to cite a source for this, I will try) that the brain allocates special areas for the first language you learn. This first language is typically the mother tongue. These days with the dominance of English and Hindi in India, children may start with these languages instead of their mother tongue and the same neuro effects happen as with the mother tongue.

    If you think further, your brain really doesn’t know what your mother tongue is? It simply allocates special space for the first language you learn.

    Your observation on the tamil post and english version is very interesting. And it does corroborate the research findings that learning in the mother tongue is better.

  8. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 4:42 am:

    Subtle words do make difference ..I remember the story of Eagle which was raised as it acted like one as it was addressed by the name….so great post it makes us think….on our choice of words too…..

  9. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 10:58 am:

    Thanks Karthik. Your example reminded me of the Babe pig movie where it believes that it is a sheep dog and behaves as such.

  10. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 12:04 pm:

    You and Priya form on heck of or tag team Sukumar ..i mean u right all the serious stuff she writes humour….i just have request ..if u can add a seperate URL in webpage with Priya’s writeups it will be awesome..for easy access…

  11. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 5:07 pm:

    Thanks for the kind words Karthik. I am planning to move this blog to wordpress to get some better features. For now, you can goto the Explore link in the banner area and click on the Fiction category. Priya’s posts are available in that category.

  12. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 9:07 am:

    I would like to add one more thing too it all relegions have given importance to sound and words…we have Aum in Karmic relegions and all Abrhamic relegions talk bout Word…..I feel it should deft have some significance

  13. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 1:54 pm:


    I can relate to what you are saying here. I also could guess your favorite client…things went so reverse spiral…

    This post is wonderful. We are the ones who enjoyed the fruits of all the effort of account managers like you. What a journey…


  14. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 3:24 pm:

    Interesting point Karthik.

  15. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 3:25 pm:

    Thanks Vamsi. What happened is incredibly sad, right?

  16. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 4:40 pm:


  17. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 7:43 pm:

    Thanks Vamsi.

  18. Quote
    Anonymous said October 27, 2007, 7:00 am:

    By thinking mode, i mean, the language has some role in influencing the way people think.

    For example, in english, accuracy of information is stressed, and hence many new words is found to more accurately represent facts & info. for example, the diff b/w discovery & invention, house & home etc..

    However in tamil, the language construct is best suited for artistic expressions, and poems.

    In Sanskrit, the language construct is equivalent to english, where its very easy to represent things more accurately.

    Just my observation.. i dont have any proof to quote.

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