We introduce our guest blog writer for this month, Steve Buchanan, a partner of KMP Consultants. Steve has been in the leadership development coaching industry for three decades, and we are honored to have him discuss the frequently used phrases in the workplace and the importance of clear and accurate communication in leadership.
When someone scans the infinite number of leadership books, articles, and other publications, some words repeatedly appear.
Words mean things.
As leaders, we have the responsibility to understand what we are saying and be as precise as we can. We should be clear in the language we employ and understand its contextual relevance and potential impact.
Yet, over time, certain words have been diminished to buzzwords or decorative phrases. Here are a few words with suggested reframes,
[ac·count·a·bil·i·ty – an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions]
Building a culture of accountability in an organization can be one of the most effective paths to success. Focusing on holding someone accountable can have the opposite effect. When we focus on holding individuals accountable, we move the responsibility to ourselves. Imagine I told you that I wanted to run a marathon and that I wanted you to hold me accountable for my training. Would you wake up early every morning to call me and make sure that I was indeed going for a run? It seems absurd, but in essence, that’s what holding someone accountable sounds like.
Let us reframe accountability into ‘voluntary accountability’ borne by the person responsible for the desired outcome.
Here’s what the same marathon goal might sound like, “I’m going to run a marathon, and I would like to be accountable to you for my training. I will call you at the end of each week and let you know how I did. I will tell you about my good days and my bad days. We can talk through things, and you can help me see how to do better.” In the workplace, this sounds like, “I would like you to complete this project. Let us check in every few days, and you can tell me about your progress. I will make sure you have everything you need, and we can identify any adjustments that you need to make.”
Now, we are reframing accountability from holding others accountable to creating a culture of accountability where individuals take ownership of their work, plan their course of action, receive coaching from their leader, and still take responsibility for the outcome.
[em·pow·er – to give official authority or legal power to]
Organizations need employees who understand what is expected of them, have the capability to do the work and have the necessary authority to act. Much of the way I hear managers speak of empowerment describes a situation where the manager holds power over the minions and only divvy it out when they feel generous. This feels demeaning and implies employees have no agency.
Empowerment is needed when an employee needs authority over financial decisions or hiring or terminating others, among other tasks. This is a clear delegation of ‘legal’ authority. We should only use this word when we intend to transfer this formal authority.
This is a situation where we don’t reframe, but we need to be more precise. Organizations should create cultures where employees have clarity around their responsibilities, have the skills to accomplish them, and understand that they have agency.
[trans·par·ent – free from pretense or deceit]
We often hear that leaders should be ‘more transparent.’ The intent is for the leader to build a human connection with employees in a deeper way, to show that they are indeed human and not some robo-manager. As with the others, this is more about accuracy.
Leaders can get so consumed with being liked, much like insecure parents, that they go too far. The need for friendship overtakes the need to get the job done. This results in the leader not giving feedback or holding back on necessary coaching for fear of damaging the relationship.
On another level, disgruntled workers use lack of transparency to claim that management is holding back information about organizational direction or ‘what’s really going on here.’
While leaders often have more information than the rank and file, they could simply be working on strategic direction and considering half-thought-out ideas or decisions that have not been made. When raw, incomplete information is shared, it could send workers into unnecessary spins.
I often ask leaders if they close their blinds at night when the lights in the house are on. They look at me quizzically and offer a resounding YES! Obviously, this is to keep our neighbors from seeing us in our most private moments. A leader can be authentic without bearing it all!
The reframe here is again about accuracy.
Is it reasonable to connect on an emotional level with our employees? Certainly. Is it important to share organizational direction and goals? Certainly.
We must, however, remember that we have an important role in assuring that employees operate with clarity of outcomes and certainty that leaders care about them and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. Leaders can create this environment while still being able to direct and coach as needed.
In today’s language, accuracy is key.
When we think about the words we use and the messages they convey, accuracy is key. Too often, we get trapped in the latest buzzwords, and before long, we use them without thinking about their meanings. Let’s do our employees a favor—let us be leaders who know ourselves and are true to who we are. We must understand what the situation and our people need from us and manage our thinking, our language, and our behavior—all with the purpose of being the most effective leaders we can be.
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