Three Incredibly Powerful Ways for Leaders to Use the Word IF

3 incredible uses of ifThe words leaders use have an incredibly powerful impact on their people.

As an english teacher, I always emphasized the importance of vocabulary… but there is ONE word that leaders may over look that, when they use it well, can have a tremendous impact on team performance.

“IF” is an incredibly powerful word for leaders.

Leadership occurs one interaction at a time, and in those conversations it is important for leaders to influence their teams with the proper use of a common and powerful word: “IF.”

There are actually three ways for leaders to focus on using the word to improve their team.

The first use of IF is for team motivation.

Using the phrase “What If…” is a powerful way to ignite imaginations and inspire innovative ideas.

Steve Jobs once famously said that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”  Innovation is the result of asking “What IF?” 

Ask yourself and encourage your teammates to consistently consider possibilities that might improve your systems and culture.  Regardless of the many diverse team members you may be dealing with, everyone is inspired to think more creatively when they consider questions like:

What if we did it this way? 

What if, instead of __________, we chose to ________?

What if we stopped doing __________?

Never allow your team to become content with where they are.  By asking “What IF?” you open the door to future innovations and ideas that otherwise may have been missed and motivate your team to invest themselves in possibility thinking.


The second use of IF is for creating a culture of awareness and ownership.

It is important for winning teammates to clearly emphasize the powerful relation of causes and effects.  Teammates must be able to anticipate the impact of their actions and take responsibility for their role in the organization’s success. 

To help with that, the second powerful way to use the word IF is as part of “If… then…” descriptions and reminders and encouragements that ensure awareness of consequences.

“If you bring those reports, then we will be able to discuss your idea at the meeting.”

“If you can improve your numbers in this area, then we will see an increase in our commissions.”

There are situations where certain teammates have trouble seeing the connection between their efforts and the organization’s success or between their actions and the ripples that are created. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson a leader can communicate is that EVERYTHING MATTERS.  Everything has consequences, and what we do and how we do it ultimately influence our results.

The third use of IF actually involves its removal.

Great leaders want to create a feeling of support and show confidence in their people. 

One simple way to accomplish this in the midst of conversations is to replace IF with WHEN every time you are discussing a project or behavior that you expect or desire to see successfully completed.  Instead of saying “IF Steve brings in that new account,” begin your comments by saying “WHEN Steve brings in that new account.”

Small changes can have an incredible impact on your team.  This small change creates a positive expectation and is a terrific technique for leaders.

As a team building speaker, I have learned that your choice of vocabulary can be a very subtle and powerful way to influence your audience and how they feel.  

An experienced basketball coach, instead of saying to his team “IF Tommy makes this free throw,” would be prudent to intentionally say instead, “WHEN Tommy  makes this free throw…” 

That phrasing may lead to a successful free throw, but it will certainly have a profound and positive impact on the team’s expectations. 

And whether it involves free throws or sales or test scores, optimism is contagious!

Be aware of the impact that IF has in your interactions.

Using it wisely, you can help to motivate your team, inspire personal accountability, and boost your team’s confidence.


team toolbox advertisement banner