Apr 21, 2022 - Economy

The power of words: Killing "killers"

Illustration of a coffee mug with the Axios logo with steam forming a thought bubble

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Several readers — including Thrive CEO Arianna Huffington and Wharton School professor Rachel Pacheco — told us they hate our phrase "killers with humility." We use it to describe ideal Axios employees: They have killer talent, but put the cause above their own ambition.

Why it matters: Well, we have the humility to listen … and we think they're right!

The gripe with "killers with humility" is instructive about the debate on modern business culture and word choices.

  • "Research shows that our word choice used in describing ideal employee characteristics and traits, unsurprisingly, has a significant impact on who applies and who joins organizations," Dr. Pacheco wrote to me. Her main concern: "Killers" is too masculine and could scare off possible candidates.
  • Huffington wrote on LinkedIn: "Killers seems like a relic from the workplace model we're leaving behind — the one where CEOs (and seemingly everybody else in business) loved to quote Sun Tzu's 'The Art Of War' and talked about success only in terms of 'killing it,' 'crushing it,' 'having only one throat to choke' and sleeping when they're dead."

How I think about this: At first, my snap instinct was to be defensive or dismissive. Our staff knows we have a terrific culture and that we say "killers" with a bit of a wink. We are 60% women and pride ourselves on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Reality check: The critics are right. People we're hiring know nothing of our culture. So if a phrase screams "beware" to anyone, then it would be dumb to keep using it. So we're scrapping it.

How this pertains to everyday life: There's a huge cultural fight over word choices. Some of the points are wise, some silly.

  • A simple rule we try to live by: If something is offensive to a group of people, you can find a better way to say it.

What to watch: We're inviting readers of Axios Finish Line to help us come up with a sharp replacement for "killers with humility." Sign up and stay tuned for the result!

Go deeper