Late last year, I had a conversation with someone that to anyone listening in sounded like many others when we talk about how people work in organisations. Some of the phrases we bandied around were:

“Yeah she’s a great leader”

“But the organisation, it’s got a crook culture”

“You gotta hold yourself accountable”

We use a hell of a lot of words to describe how people relate to one another, form groups then succeed, fail, fight or get along with each other at work. Often, there’s enough shared language for 2 people to have a conversation about say, why Jane is or isn’t a good leader or why management’s latest decision is a good one or a shocker. But it’s all too common for there to be almost no precise and shared understanding of the language used.

Why do we – as a human race – like to maintain this ambiguity when we know in almost every other field – the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture – there is a very helpful and readily usable set of words and commonly accepted meanings for those words.

There’s a word that always springs to mind – fuzzy. Meaning that both of us in a conversation have the basic gist of what we’re talking about but neither of us quite know where the outer limits are. Of course, often we don’t need precise definitions because we might know each other so well that it’s just obvious what it means. In my experience that’s rare.

Take “leadership” as a very common example. What does it mean to you? I’ll guess at some descriptors that may come to mind:

  • Engaging
  • Goal-focused
  • Brings the team along
  • Winston Churchill
  • Inspiring
  • Powerful

Let’s say you are the manager of a small team. Your boss comes to you one day and says “I think you’re doing a good job, but I’d like you to show more leadership“. Typically this creates some panic, because I’m wondering “is there something inherent in me that means I won’t be able to do this ‘leadership’? Do I need to plan more? Talk to my team more? Talk to them less and just tell them what to do?”

Wouldn’t life be a easier if your boss said, “I like what you’ve done with the website, but can you please put in links to our new social media sites?” Wouldn’t it be great if we could make these people words a bit more like words we use for other things and a little less fuzzy?

Part of the answer to this is to actually work – together – on what we mean by these words. Plenty has been written and I’m not advocating here for certain definitions. But this needs some work in nearly all organisations. To me, the benefits are self-evident.

Wouldn’t it be a great start to the year to clear some of this up?

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