I Thought I Made Myself Clear

Does your organization have its own jargon? Maybe it has a set of acronyms. Perhaps there are euphemisms. I once worked in a company where “coaching and constructive feedback” was a euphemism for getting chewed out. In another organization being treated “with dignity and respect” meant you were going to get fired. It seems kind of bizarre that an employee had to get fired before being treated with dignity and respect.

How often do we use common words only to later learn that there was a misunderstanding? Failure to arrive at a shared understanding has many causes. Language is the means of conveyance for the substance of communication. Language includes many forms of conveyance including words, gestures (which finger were you holding up?), the tone of voice, the timing of delivery and the setting (your office versus mine?). Today I want to look at the role of words. 

Words are symbols that convey meaning. Without common definition the words we use can lead to misunderstanding. We may guess that because a word is common that there is an understanding of its definition. We might also operate on a default assumption that the definition for common words is the same for everyone. We may further assume that any misunderstanding of definition will be brought to light by posing the interrogatory, “Do you understand?” or the calling people to reflection with “Are there any questions?” How often does acknowledgment of understanding mean comprehension? Is the absence of questions evidence of a shared understanding or of a false presumption?

How often do we find we are misunderstood? How many organizations have a collection of business speak (BS for all you acronym lovers)? Often the BS terms are used more to obfuscate and avoid accountability than they are to drive results.

What can we do when words fail us? We can start by confirming that we have a common definition for the words we are using. Let’s start with an exercise: write down the definitions of the following two words, roles, and responsibility. These are common words used in daily business transactions. Is there a difference between roles and responsibility? What is the relationship between the two and how do they differ? Why do we talk about roles and responsibilities if we cannot define them?

Try another exercise: pick out five to seven of words from your daily business lexicon. Make them basic like authority, accountability, communication, etc. Do not use acronyms or other company specific nouns. During the next team meeting ask each team member to write down the definition for each word on a piece of paper. When the team is finished, collect the definitions. Pick a word and read the definitions recorded by the team. Are the definitions all the same? If they are, you are the exception and I congratulate you. 

What is the impact if the definitions for common terms are different? Are we leaving interpretation of those terms to each individual? Will that result in the most efficient means of realizing outcomes? Are mistakes being made? Is opportunity being lost? Do your teams have a “BS Bingo Board” where they track the use of terms during meetings?

One solution is to develop a team glossary. Define the terms. Sounds simple, remedial even, but what is lost? If a word is not easy to define can we expect to use the word with predictable results? 

So think about this. Listen to the next few meetings you sit through. Stop people and ask them to share their definition of “appropriate” when they talk about “measures”. Ask them to define what “accountable” means if we are going to hold people to that standard. Maybe if we slow down and define the words we are using we will not have to talk so fast explaining why things go wrong.

Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC