When words fail us

When words fail us
By Paul Clifford

Are you like me and chuckle at some of the language used in organisations?

At one of my former employers, terms like “top of mind", "flag (an issue)" and "close the loop" were used commonly.  Whenever they were used I would automatically create an accompanying visual – an issue sitting on a person’s head, someone waving a little white flag and a person walking into someone’s office with a hula hoop.    

I was curious as to why these terms were used and not “I was thinking about….”, “I’d like to raise an issue….” and “just getting back to you about….”  I thought these were the conventional phrases.  However it seems catchphrases really do catch on in organisations and make the conventional seem a little dull.   

It’s not only the catchphrases that raise my curiosity.  It’s also what might be termed ‘repeated slogans’ that might sound clever but unwittingly create poor outcomes.

A case in point are phrases used during periods of so-called ‘change’ – “we are going through change", "our people don't like change" and "you are change resistant".  None of these are helpful. They often create the exact opposite of what we want from ‘change’, which is a workforce that is willing to cooperate and contribute to the future.

the term ‘change’ has too many negative connotations to it; it is typically associated with historical disappointment

Why is this so?

Firstly, these phrases are absolute and they pre-determine how we will be treating people through a change process.  We expect this process to be difficult, we expect employees won’t like it and we expect that employees will take action to oppose change.  We set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.     

Secondly, the term ‘change’ has too many negative connotations to it. It is typically associated with historical disappointment "This is going to be just like the last change program", "We haven't finished the last change" and "I am change fatigued".  You haven't even started down a new organisational path and you've already put your people in a negative headspace.

Another repeated slogan I find curious is "we need to communicate more".  Sounds good but what does that mean? Communication cannot be judged simply by the fact that words have been transmitted to an audience. It must be evaluated on its effectiveness, the satisfaction of the receiver with it and whether it generates outcomes.

Now let’s combine “we need to communicate more” with “during times of change”, an all too common and often meaningless slogan that is trotted out by the well-intentioned but one that simply creates more questions than answers. 

Here’s what we really should be saying:

  • We need an explanation of the change ahead - "why are we doing this?"
  • We need clear direction about behaviour - "what do you need us to do differently?"
  • We need to understand the benefits of the change - "what's in it for us?"
  • We need an opportunity to provide input - "here's our suggestions on what the future could look like",
  • We need you to explain the decision made – “what was the criteria for the decision and how was my feedback taken into account"? and finally,
  • We need you to explain what happened with the last ‘change’ – “Did we measure its success and did we apply the lessons learned"?

We can send out messages about restructures or adjustments to strategic direction but if the messages don’t contain the above and leave the audience with vague corporate speak, they are useless.  In fact they are more than useless because they are likely to breed even greater discontent than when we started.  For the sake of positive outcomes we must go beyond using the hollow clichéd phrases and be more descriptive.

So why is it that we continue to use these terms that effectively mislead and unwittingly sabotage our efforts to lead others?  I think the answer is that it’s often challenging to specify exactly what we need.  As an example, try getting someone to explain what someone is actually doing when they are showing respect.  I did it repeatedly with different audiences recently and many were stumped.  They couldn’t articulate what showing respect actually looked like.

For the sake of positive outcomes we must go beyond using the hollow clichéd phrases and be more descriptive.

If people can't explain what they mean by respect or communication then it’s likely we don’t have a shared understanding of it.  If we don't have a shared understanding of what the term means then telling people to be more respectful or to communicate more is not much good to anyone. Sounds good but will it result in the exact behaviour change you are wanting?

Some of the language we use in organisations are pretty harmless but some of the phrases on the topics of change and communication can put us in a worse position than when we started.  We need to be careful with our language and go beyond the nice sound bites.  Leading others is hard enough as it is.  Don't make it even harder by using language that can unwittingly create the exact opposite of your intentions.


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Guest Thursday, 23 May 2019