Taking Liberties with Definitions

5 May


Is the Workplace Becoming a New Tower of Babel?

With all the excitement about today’s social media, I’ve noticed – and perhaps you have too – that certain individuals seem to take liberties in defining words as they choose rather than complying with more authoritative sources, uh, such as dictionaries. Take the word criticism, for example. One blogger said that she would rather receive “feedback” than “criticism” – but then went on to describe feedback that closely mirrored the official definition of criticism. Others torture the definition of criticism as something related to “personal bashing”, such as an insult, or having a characteristic of being hurtful. In fact one HR person hinted he was considering banning it altogether.

The other day I was coaching an executive who defined empowerment as giving her people an opportunity to make decisions that she “would ultimately approve or disapprove”. Sounds like, in her world, empowerment is simply synonymous with suggestions! Whatever, I’m not sure how working for her would be all that empowering.

Another word that seems to have become abused almost beyond a recognizable definition is “accountable. ” Recently, when surveying HR professionals from organizations in and around Manhattan, only 35% of them claimed that the managers within their respective organizations hold their people “accountable.” When subsequently asking what being held accountable means, I received varying definitions – ranging from employees not doing what was asked of them to managers not following through.

Where am I going with this? It’s hard enough to communicate clearly so that the receiver and sender stay on the same page. But when the definitions of what once was common managerial lingo takes on different and personalized meanings, it makes communicating with one another confusing and even more challenging.

Imagine delivering a presentation to a group of your employees where all have a different interpretation of words like goals, objectives, accountability, and success. Before you walk off the podium with the assumption that they all “got it”, you might want to clarify your meaning of the key operative words you had used. In your clarification follow-up you may be surprised by the Tower of Babel effect your presentation had on at least a few in your audience.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).

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