Leadership Insight #8 - 2022: Names matter! Why getting people's names right is an important leadership skill

19 May 2022

I loved reading this article. It’s such a simple idea, often difficult to do, and it’s a core part of inclusive leadership behaviour. Listen to the start of the article:

“I don’t want to butcher your name. Can I call you Raj?” a fellow student asked me.

… I politely declined. It took him only two efforts, and about 30 seconds, to get it right. I wasn’t surprised. Names like Shanyuan, Pracheta, Quvenzhané Wallis, and even Joaquin Phoenix, might seem difficult to pronounce at first glance, but all it takes is a momentary effort. (In fact, you just gave one while reading this article.)”

We live in a very multicultural society. Our names come from all over the world. They sound different, have different spelling than we’re used to, and we shorten names too, in all different ways. We chose a Dutch name for my daughter, and at seven years old she changed it – she was sick of hearing people butcher her name. It goes to the heart of our identity, and therefore to the time and effort the people around us are willing to take to see us in that identity.

What can we do?

Getting someone’s name right matters, and it may take a bit of extra effort at first. The effort however is often minimal and as a leader and engaged team member and peer it demonstrates you value a person’s identity and wish to create a culture that is inclusive.  

So, what amount of effort are we talking about really?

  1. The acknowledgment firstly that the name is tricky, for you
  2. Caring enough to recognise you might need to take time to get it right
  3. Asking the person for clarification so your efforts aren’t in vain
  4. Practising & persisting – so you do get it right.

So next time you’re not sure, just politely ask – “I’m not sure I know how to say you name – can you pronounce it for me?”. Be brave … go for it … say it back to them on the spot.   Yes, you’ll get it wrong a few times. Does that matter?  No…it is the effort that is valued.

Alternatively, if you are the owner of a less familiar, or difficult to pronounce name – be an ally by being ready to help those around you get your name right! Think about how to explain the phonetics; the author then even suggests putting the phonetic spelling in your email signature, which might be a good strategy for some.

How saying everyone’s name – and getting them right – is an act of leadership.  

Addressing your colleagues by name, especially in team settings, meetings and other collaborative tasks is an effective behaviour for establishing effective teams. Saying peoples names is a strong signal that you see them, you value them being there, and that you want their input. So, make this an everyday practice; greet people by name, introduce colleagues to each other by name, and get them right!

Dr Anna Clark (PhD)

Leadership coach and educator, AMA Victoria

Dr Anna Clark is AMAVs Leadership consultant, coach and educator, currently offering individual coaching for doctors and directing the AMA’s professional development programs in leadership, the Emerging Leader Program and Middle Leader Program


Reference & resources

Why Getting Someone’s Name Right Matters by Rajat Panwar – Harvard Business Review January 2022 

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