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How the Right Business Language Can Catalyze Change

Leaders need to use great care when choosing the words that shape companies, industries, and societies. See also “Banish These Words from the Business Lexicon.”

The language of business, often cluttered with jargon and buzzwords, has long been ripe for satire: Think of the 1960 film The Apartment, in which tacking “-wise” onto almost any word turned it into management-speak, or the ongoing skewering of corporate inanity in Scott Adams’s Dilbert cartoons. But while being “tasked with an action item” may elicit chuckles or eye-rolls, such gobbledygook is not a mere harmless annoyance.

This piece is not another humorous takedown of office mumbo jumbo, fun as that would be. Rather, it is a serious plea to consider and use words with greater care. Words will shape the future of your company, your industry, and our society. And the words we choose now are especially important as organizations face turbulent changes in competition, technology, climate, and geopolitics.

How we describe ourselves and the world around us helps determine how we perceive risk, reward, opportunity, and obligation. As cognitive anthropologist and branding consultant Bob Deutsch told me, “Words can change the way we think and behave. One word can change a situation. I can start a war with words. I can seduce you with words. Words are the most powerful thing we humans have, save a gun to your head.”

Powerful — yet are you using that power effectively? In her 2016 TEDx talk, Cheryl Heller, founding chair of the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts, said, “We are likely the only species that uses words so abstractly that we no longer have access to the truth.…When words are powerful, they clarify so we can see the same thing and act together.”

The words we choose now are especially important as organizations face turbulent change.

“When we commission someone to design something physical, such as a building, you would never use vague language,” Heller told me. “When we talk about other issues — health, for example — we talk in generalities such as ‘well-being’ that can mean different things to different people. You need specific, actionable words to crystalize meaning and shared understanding.”

To that end, I suggest three words that should be banished from the business lexicon, and words that might replace them and bring that clarity. These are not simply my favorite bugaboos — rather, they are a trio whose replacement holds the potential to reshape larger conversations in dramatic and positive ways.

Consumers. I hold an undergraduate degree in economics, so I am well-versed in words that define humans as units of economic activity. That abstraction inhibits your understanding of the individuals who use your product or service and distorts the reasons for their purchases. Deutsch told me that he has been advocating for a simple alternative since 2002: people. People have hopes, fears, needs, and desires. People laugh, vote, invest, argue, become ill, and do so much more than simply consume what you offer. They are seeking a way to solve their challenges and achieve their aspirations.

According to Deutsch, people’s buying decisions are both routinized, almost ritualized — think long-term brand loyalty — and also contradictory, varying based on shifting needs and desires. To decode this paradox, you must discern how your offering enables people to create meaning in their lives in that moment. Consumer obfuscates the path to that knowledge by defining people as one-dimensional. People, however, allows for more depth.

Empower. In the command-and-control industrial age, power was centralized and doled out carefully through roles, designations of authority, and even allocations of office space. Overstepping one’s bounds could be a career-ending move. Empower carries that old-school, fear-based baggage: I have the power and, if I deem you worthy, I will bestow some upon you. It is condescending at best and disempowering at worst.

But when organizations prize innovation and agility, as many do now, the power dynamic shifts. Executives retain the ability to hire and fire. Beyond certain standard performance requirements, however, people throughout the organization have the power to contribute as many or as few of their ideas and as much or as little of their energy as they choose. They can engage with you or direct their initiative to a side hustle that becomes a startup and emerges as your next disruptive competitor.

The antidote? I like untether, as it puts the onus of removing obstacles to success on the organization and its managers. Leaders don’t give power; at their best, they create space and get out of the way. Anti-human trafficking activist Rachel Goble has suggested inspire after using empower for years. She wrote, “The word inspire is to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something (especially something creative).” It is certainly another worthy alternative.

Alignment. Achieving organizational alignment is an evergreen goal in the realm of business ideas in part because no one ever achieves it, at least not for long. Alignment suggests a top-down, linear arrangement of distinct components with fixed relationships. Think of a typical org chart. Increasingly, organizations and the context in which they operate are understood as complex, adaptive systems. The relationships are dynamic and, as Heller notes in her new book, The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design, “the relationship between objects is a greater determinant of their character than are the objects themselves.” You can align your car; a global enterprise, not so much.

Harmony is closer to both what is possible and desirable. Though it may sound a bit New Age-y, harmony captures what Michael Hayden called “the balance between freedom of action for the parts and unity of effort for the whole.” Hayden, a former director of both the National Security Agency and the CIA, was describing the optimal state for the various entities that make up the national security enterprise — about as far from New Age as one can get. Attempts to bring those entities together are analogous to making sense of the disparate units of a corporate conglomerate.

In a choir, everyone is singing the same song, but contributing to it in ways that blend to create an outcome better than any participant could achieve on his or her own. That seems like the desired outcome many contemporary leaders seek.

You may not agree with my new word choices or with my picks for the words we need to eliminate from business-speak. If that’s the case, please leave your suggestions in the comments below or tweet me @RicherEarth and include #BizLanguage. Regardless, I would hope that we can agree with a quote attributed to Confucius (by way of Heller). When asked what he would have done had he ever ruled over the Chinese empire, he said, “I would rectify the language, and make words mean what they are supposed to mean again.”

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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