Leaders Avoid Using Passive Voice

We are at our best when we feel in control of our fate. In other words, when we have a sense of autonomy, we are more likely to make better choices and take ownership of those choices. Additionally, we inspire confidence and trust when we take responsibility for our choices.

Words matter.

Generally, we use passive voice to take ourselves or someone else out of the equation. We think the subject of the sentence is not as important as the content, or maybe we don’t want to sound like we’re blaming someone. Another reason we might use passive voice is to avoid making ourselves sound bad.

Yet, the use of passive voice can hurt more than we think. It’s a classic example of why words matter.

Here’s a nice summary of passive voice from Grammarly.com. If you don’t know what I mean by “passive voice,” I’d recommend reading the linked article before continuing this one.

Taking ownership is empowering.

“I made a mistake” (active) is way more powerful and empowering than saying, “Mistakes were made” (passive).

“I apologize for what I did” (active) is better than “You are owed an apology” (passive).

People use these next two examples in situations where they may not have the case they thought they did:

“I was told that…” (passive).

“I was under the impression that…” (passive).

The recipient of those two phrases may interpret them as invalid. However, if the concern is valid, you will need to strengthen the language:

“When I read the terms and conditions, I found that…” (active)

“In the January 15 meeting, Roger implied that…” (active)

I’m a big culprit when it comes to using passive voice in my writing, particularly in this blog over the last 11 years. I had good intentions; I wanted to diminish my own presence and put the focus elsewhere. DeAnne, though, who has been my editor for four-ish years, pointed out my use of passive voice weakens my points. She fixes me a lot.

Is it passive voice?

One fun trick to determine if you are using passive voice is to use “by zombies” after your verb. If it makes sense, the sentence is passive.

  • The frisbee was thrown (by zombies) through the window. Passive.
  • I threw the frisbee (by zombies) through the window. Active.
  • The coffee pot was left out (by zombies). Passive.
  • Someone left the coffee pot out (by zombies). Active.
  • A mistake has been made (by zombies) on the report. Passive.
  • I noticed a mistake (by zombies) on the report. Active.

So, take a spin through your own writing and speaking, and see what you think.

Use the active voice to own your actions and thoughts. It’s more clear and empowering on all sides.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

  1. Jared
    | Reply

    Excellent! Young leaders… listen to Alan!

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