Setting the tone


Our power as leaders comes from how we show up. How we behave, what we say, the energy we bring to each interaction and situation are often underappreciated tools for moving us toward desired outcomes. As leaders, every day we have opportunities to set the tone for our teams and our organization. According to the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, to ‘set the tone’ is to establish a particular mood or character for something. When something someone does or says sets the tone for an event or activity, it establishes the way the event or activity will continue, especially the mood of the people involved.


Setting the tone shapes what’s possible. Some positive ways that leaders set the tone and influence others include acknowledging individuals, respecting differences, showing personal interest, being inclusive, celebrating progress, inviting experimentation, encouraging learning, listening and being curious, inviting others’ ideas, having an open-mind, asking questions, being calm, sharing information, being transparent, and openly communicating.


Tone is set by the physical actions we take (or fail to take). As leaders, our every action or inaction is measured against the standards we communicate. If we say it’s important to prioritize, yet we continue to add new work into the funnel, our team experiences a disconnect (and likely burnout). If we say our team is empowered, yet we continue to tell them what we want them to do rather than guide their direction, trust their brilliance and be curious about what they will create, our team quits rising toward excellence. If we tell our teams that work-life balance is important, yet we don’t take our vacation and we are sending emails over the weekend expecting an immediate response, the expectation gets set that we need to be ‘on’ for work all the time. We lack integrity when what we do is not in alignment with what we say. Of course, we are human and that means we are imperfect, and values and behavior won’t always be in sync. The goal is a level of consistency that shows we are serious about what we want to be creating.


Tone is also set with the words we use. Words are a way of expressing ourselves and describing our experiences, and they are filled with emotion. Emotions get tied to words through our experiences, and with time and repetition, some words can have very profound effect. We can actually shape how we feel – and how those around us feel – by intentionally choosing particular words. Instead of saying “I’m fine.” when asked how we are doing, if we say “I feel great!”, we begin to create something very different.

Our mindset and attitudes are revealed through our words. Where we have our attention, what we value, and what we are afraid of or excited about are revealed through our choice of words. Our teams can see through us to our hopes and fears just by listening to us. The question is, are we aware of what we are projecting out into the world? Are we focused on what’s working or what’s not working? Do we see problems to be fixed or opportunities to create anew? Do we hold back expecting perfection or lean in and open to experimentation?


How we speak our words is another key ingredient in tone setting. We set the tone not only through our choice of words, but also by how we speak them. It’s as much what we say as how we say it. The energy we bring stems from our own emotions and feelings, and in turn creates emotions and feelings in those who are in our presence. Have you ever been in a meeting and felt the mood shift when someone shared something deeply personal? Sometimes our body language and energy are inconsistent with our choice of words, and this can lead to a breakdown in trust due to perceived lack of honesty. Have you ever heard someone say one thing yet their body language or tone of voice did not match the words (e.g., someone standing with their hands across their chest and speaking in a commanding voice who says that openness is valued)?tone5

How often are we even conscious of how we are shaping our own and others’ experience through our actions, words, and energy? How often do we pause, even momentarily, to be clear in our own mind about the outcome we want – for ourselves, for others, for the overall situation? The path to setting the tone is being intentional – pausing to gather feedback, to gain self-insight, to get clarity about what we want to be creating, and then to choosing and acting in alignment with the vision we have.

Perhaps you want to explore these possibilities* for being intentional about tone setting along with me?

  1. Get to know each individual on your team so that you can hone your tone in ways that most resonate.
  2. Develop a distinct and consistent tone of voice that illustrates your personality.
  3. Explore word choices, favorite expressions and personal stories that communicate values you want to impart.
  4. Identify images that help you connect with the emotional element of your tone.
  5. Consider the outcomes you are committed to achieving and the difference the organization’s work makes.
  6. Explore level of formality, leaning toward a conversational tone if you want to bring humanity to your workplace and build personal connection.
  7. Be consistent in using your tone across all channels (meetings, blogs, chats).
  8. Practice so that words come out naturally and your energy supports your message. When writing, read your message out loud to refine the tone.
  9. Slow down enough that you can consider what you say, rather than just blurting out what comes to your mind.
  10. Put yourself in your team member’s shoes and see how what you want to say feels, and then adjust accordingly.
  11. Consider what will add value in the moment, and rather than jumping in to fix a problem or focus on what’s important to you, be present and identify what the situation calls for.
  12. Use gratitude to invite kind, feel-good emotions that support a positive frame of mind.
  13. Open to feedback – from team members, peers, clients…really with anyone whom you interact.
  14. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Don’t forget to listen to the words you use with yourself. Notice your strengths and appreciate what is working well as you make enhancements.

* This list was developed based in part on advice provided in these articles:



Author: Vicki L Flaherty

I am most alive when I am creating, whether through writing, photography, gardening, cooking, crafting, sewing, yoga. I enjoy traveling because it opens me to greater awareness and new possibilities. I find a special joy when I’ve helped someone see their brilliance and express their full potential. As I've focused on living more mindfully, I've found special joy in expressing myself through poetry and photography, and in truly being in relationship with those I meet along my journey.

11 thoughts on “Setting the tone”

  1. What a lovely post and amazing list of way to set the tone. I am picking three (I am a simple person) – a) Get to know each person individually so that I can package my message in a tone that works best for them, b) Choose to slow down for effectiveness rather than falling into my old trap of thinking and speaking quickly, and c) Use gratitude to support a positive frame of mind. Thanks so much, Vicki!

  2. Love that you picked 3 that most resonate with you, Maureen! Glad you liked the post, my friend, and hope that it invites something special into your day, week, month and beyond! So great to connect by voice last week!

  3. “Tone is set by the physical actions we take (or fail to take)” – realizing that actions we fail to take can carry just as much impact. Wow.

  4. Wonderful post Vicki ! Thank you…these are my top 3. A) Use gratitude to invite kind, feel-good emotions that support a positive frame of mind. B) Be gentle and kind with yourself. Don’t forget to listen to the words you use with yourself. Notice your strengths and appreciate what is working well as you make enhancements. C) Identify images that help you connect with the emotional element of your tone.

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