Hey! Watch your language!

Scrabble tiles interlocking to spell "Choose Your Words"Words. Language. Meaning. Communication.

Many years ago, I did a video (no longer available) in which I stated that “words are all we have.”

Whoa, did I ever get pushback on that. And reasonably so; we certainly do communicate in many other ways than just words.

Nonetheless, especially in this era of text messages, Slack messages, emails, social media posts, and so on (and on), words really matter.

I’ve been on a bit of a rampage recently about various words and phrases that are misunderstood, problematic, or downright harmful. It started with a LinkedIn rant and article about “quiet quitting,” went on to an article in my LinkedIn newsletter about buzzwords, and more recently has been my thoughts here and, yes, on LinkedIn about how we use the terms “psychological safety,” “whole self,” and “servant leader.”

To start with, as soon as a word or phrase becomes common usage – a.k.a. a buzzword, jargon-ish, or corporate-speak – it loses meaning. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt, and we stop hearing the words on any meaningful level. Even worse, the term often becomes eye-rolly, in that we perceive it’s being used as a checkbox item or to convince people that we’re taking some sort of action (even when…we’re really not).

And we start getting sloppy with it. We don’t take the time to be clear about what we mean. And we overlook the ways in which some words have a load of cultural baggage that obstructs or confuses what’s really meant. “Servant” (in “servant leadership”) is an obvious example; many people flinch from that word, for many different reasons, and / or interpret it in ways that aren’t helpful, to say the least.

So – as a manager and leader, what can you do?

Define your terms

I will forever be grateful for my demanding, sometimes irascible, ancient history professor, John Toomey. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times: define your terms. If you handed in a paper (and we had to write one every week) without being clear about what you meant, you … well, you didn’t fare well. And I’ve seen leadership teams tear themselves apart because they each had a slightly different definition of the word success.

Just because a meaning is “obvious” to you doesn’t mean everyone around you is using it the same way.

Define your terms. What do you actually mean by “psychological safety”? How will you know that you’ve achieved it within your teams (especially related to questions of diversity and inclusion)? What do you actually mean by “bring your whole self to work”? How will you know your people feel comfortable doing that – and how does it actually show up in their behavior?

It takes some work. It takes thinking about cause and effect. It takes talking with people to learn how they define the various words you’re using – and don’t limit yourself to only those words I’m discussing here. Got values? Define them. And so on.

Define the behavior

Once you’ve figured out what things mean, you also need to figure out how it shows up.

This avoids the pitfall of a term – even a well-defined term – not being actionable because the behaviors aren’t defined. Once again, you run the risk of having different people approach “behaving” in different ways.

Define responsibility and accountability

As managers and leaders, we’re responsible for making sure that the desired behaviors are actually happening.

Which means, first, communicating with our teams. Explain what the definitions are, and explain the expected behaviors.

And then, second, take action if and when performance isn’t up to our standards. Have we defined the terms and the behaviors in such a way that people actually understand? And if so, what’s preventing them from taking the desired action? Is there a barrier that needs to be removed, a process that needs to be improved, a definition that needs to be clarified?

It takes intentionality and effort

This isn’t easy. These terms are important and they pack a lot of meaning into just one or two words – and often that meaning is slippery, hard to get hold of, and challenging to define in ways that create (instead of breaking) a sense of belonging and inclusion.

And it’s worth it in terms of developing strong leaders and engaged teams.

Want to talk about how to get started on this? Contact me and we’ll set a time to see how I can help!