What’s in a Word?



February 27, 2018

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

– Nathanial Hawthorne

My grandmother did a crossword puzzle every day.  She was a quiet woman, but she had a way with words no matter the situation. When I was a child I would sit with her in the early mornings, eating bagels while working on the puzzle of the day. I wasn’t much help, but those mornings taught me a great deal about the words we acquire over time and the power in using the right word in the right place.

Throughout my career as a Change Practitioner, I’ve become increasingly aware of how this concept plays out across interpersonal relationships, organizational culture, and team effectiveness.  A recent study by North Highland and Harvard Business Review found that 88% of respondents said their employer had recently experienced or was currently experiencing a disruption of some sort. With disruption and change occurring faster than ever before, words are not always carefully considered, especially in more casual, day-to-day conversations.  This can lead to misunderstanding, misaligned objectives, frustrated team members, a waste of time and resources, and even harmful unintended consequences.  The average employee sends 200 emails a week and attends 62 meetings a month. Thousands of words are shared during those exchanges, and serve as the catalyst for shaping mindsets, emotions, behaviors, and ultimately results, yet most business leaders fail to prioritize a little extra time on something that can be mission critical to their goals.

Steve Walton, Professor at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business shares with his classes the visual imagery our words are tied to.  Steve gives the example of the term ‘supply chain.’  The imagery invoked when imagining a chain lends itself to words like link, order, chronological.  But, what if, we used the term ‘supply onion’?  This invokes a whole new set of imagery and words—layers, nonlinear, complex—that might better lend itself to the actual characteristics of the supply chain business. In the chain scenario, teams are likely to act in a waterfall style with more silos, whereas the onion concept promotes more agile ways of working.

Social Media platform, Buffer, discovered they were receiving less than 2% of female applicants for developer roles. In uncovering the issue, they found that their word choice of “hacker” for the job title could be excluding those that found it difficult to identify with the term hacker.  This prompted a conversation and overhaul of the job title and role description.  The team explored other word choices—engineer, developer, builder, programmer, etc.—and ultimately decided hacker was no longer representative of the role and what they wanted in a team member.

Consider more high-risk situations, such as teams at hospitals or on construction sites.  If leaders use language encouraging “zero incidents” it stifles healthy communication and opportunities for lessons learned when close calls inevitably occur.  Zero tolerance language creates fear and an environment where errors are hidden rather than shared.  Leaders should instead share missteps and learnings they’ve experienced in their career, and prompt team members to participate in the discussion.

These examples reveal the implications for careful language consideration, especially during times of change and disruption.  In effecting change, the words a leader uses can energize a team with creativity and innovation, leading them to new ways of thinking, or can completely stifle their ingenuity.

The stories we tell shape our world, and mindfully crafting our words and messages is a powerful instrument in building our desired results.  To be clear, simply pulling out your thesaurus won’t make your desired results magically appear.  The results come from the human action.  But the human action is deeply influenced by emotion, for which language is a catalyst. A simple check before hitting send or speaking up could be something like:

  • What is my intended meaning? How does my language explicitly state that?
  • What actions am I trying to inspire? Do these words drive/reinforce that?
  • Do my words carry bias? Are the pronouns I’m using inclusive? Am I describing team member roles and tasks neutrally? 

When you choose the words you share with your teams, consider their impact. It’s not about wordsmithing every last syntax; it’s about understanding how words drive actions and results.

Years later when my grandmother passed, my father gifted me her dictionary which has been displayed prominently on my bookshelf ever since.  Its presence provides a daily reminder of the power of its words, and that with proper use they can foster inclusion, collaboration, creativity, and resiliency.