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Speak Honestly, Lead Honorably

Beware of euphemisms that belie “hellish” behavior.

On a recent Saturday morning, around 2:00 a.m., I toured a corner of hell. It’s a lot closer than I thought it would be—around the corner from an amusement park near my home. On the streets were beautiful young women and girls selling their bodies for sex. They work seven days a week, as many hours as it takes until they meet their quota. In the vast majority of cases, it’s slavery. But almost no one calls it that. Instead, we use a euphemism like “oldest profession in the world.” When the women make their nightly quotas, they can go “home” (usually to a motel room), where they hand their earnings to their pimp who “loves” them. Sleep and repeat, 365 days a year—except when they’re in jail or the hospital.

The hellish reality of prostitution is normalized, in part, by applying everyday words to unacceptable behaviors. The women and girls are in the “game,” walking the “track,” going on “dates” with their “regulars.” Except it’s not a game or a sport that anyone wins.

The experience got me thinking about the way businesspeople also use euphemisms to rationalize behavior. Of course, conventional business practices are nothing like the socially destructive force of something as criminal as forced prostitution. But in a similar fashion, the usage of euphemisms in business can distance us away from behaviors that we prefer not to confront – behaviors that can deeply affect the quality of our lives, relationships, and workplaces.

I am human and therefore selfish. We all are. Our go-to state of mind is to consider our needs above those of others. And we tend to rationalize our behavior in the kindest of terms, and with the blandest of euphemisms. We’re not working too much, we tell ourselves, but providing for our families. We’re not stingy, but careful with our money. We’re not taking advantage of our customers, but serving them; not firing an employee, but managing them out of the organization.

Because our brains can’t tolerate the gap between wanting to “be good” but continuing to “act bad,” we describe our negative behaviors in the most favorable light. Selfish behaviors, obfuscated in rationalistic euphemisms, allow for the creation and sustainment of hellish cultures in all aspects of our lives, including business.

Of course, not all euphemisms are bad—some serve to protect dignity (e.g., “mentally challenged”), and others serve as shorthand communication (e.g., “Let’s declare victory” rather than, “Let’s wrap this project up—the outcome is probably as good as it’s going to get”). But euphemisms go bad when they are used to justify behaviors that benefit one party at the expense of another. This result is borne of selfishness and the belief that life is a win-lose proposition. In business, winning must come at the cost of others, often those with less power—vendors, employees, the planet, customers, suppliers.

Euphemisms go bad when they’re used to justify behaviors that benefit one at the expense of another.

Let’s examine some business euphemisms you may have heard, and the underlying truths that we try to avoid:

When we say…

We usually mean…

I misspoke

I lied

Our teams are not collaborating well

I don’t like working with you and my people are following my lead

We are demising the roles of nearly 1,000 employees

We are firing people because we care more about our shareholders than our employees

We have a challenging issue in one of our product lines

We have a serious problem with product quality

We need a change management plan

We need to figure out how to convince people to accept a change they are not going to like

Let’s do some succession planning

Let’s decide who is going to get promoted and who is not

Our strategy calls for value-pricing

We are going to reduce quality so we can lower prices

We are shifting our workforce composition

We are reducing the number of full-time employees so we can save money on wages and benefits

We will use a competitive bid process

We want the lowest price possible

We will achieve carbon neutrality through the marketplace

We buy our way out of our pollution problem

I love the way this author summarizes the impact of phony speech, “Orwell was right: euphemisms can be sneaky and coercive. They cloak a decision’s unpleasant results, as in ‘let go’ for ‘fire,’ or ‘right-sizing’ for ‘mass sackings.’ They make consequences sound less horrid—as, chillingly, in ‘collateral damage’ for ‘dead civilians.’”

Although it’s hard to imagine an entire organization communicating without euphemisms, we all know the value of leaders who are able to speak plainly and help others confront the brutal facts. In doing so, they give a “sense of exhilaration that comes in facing head-on the hard truths and saying, ‘We will never give up. We will never capitulate. It might take a long time, but we will find a way to prevail,’” as Jim Collins says. As a leader, you can stimulate discussions that reveal and confront brutal facts, discussions that are necessary to find the right solutions for all involved. Doing so requires that you:

·         Remain humble. In every action, reflect on your motives and seek the input of others.

·         Speak plainly. Get rid of jargon and say what you mean. Doing so will encourage others to do the same.

·         Adopt a mind-set of abundance. A person with a mind-set of abundance (versus scarcity) believes that “there’s plenty to go around and everyone can enjoy the plenty that we’ve been given,” as Stephen Pearson says.

·         Get the whole system in the room. Whole Foods Markets uses a strategic planning process created by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff called Future Search, which gathers input from all stakeholders in order to craft a plan designed to benefit the whole system.

·         Refuse the trade-offs. Identify the trade-offs implicit in conventional thinking and replace or with and. Instead of, “How do we realize our financial goals or take care of our people?” ask, “How do we realize our financial goals and take care of our people?” And thinking reveals other options—for example, you may discover that some of your people are ready to retire, would like to move to part-time work, or have ideas to increase sales or productivity or reduce costs in other areas.

·         Be courageous. Don’t accept orders, but offer alternatives. Don’t offer up a succession plan without also developing a plan on how to help all of your employees utilize their gifts and pursue their passions. If you need help mustering courage, imagine explaining your decisions and actions to your children.

·         Start small. One day at a time. One conversation at a time. One decision at a time. The discomfort you feel is directly correlated with the potential impact you can have.

To me, hell is full of people who are participating in unacceptable behavior and convincing themselves otherwise. If you are interested creating a bit of heaven on earth, start by challenging the status quo by changing the language that allows it to prevail. 

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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