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Axioms for Efficient Firms #1: You are Responsible Your Words

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by Ryan Anderson

on 10 December, 2014

The Filevine Axioms cover some of our core beliefs. We believe that if you wish to be an efficient firm, then you must accept that you are responsible for your words. Taking on that responsibility is the first step.

Grammarians report the latest tragedy in the War on Words. Because of frequent misuse of the word “literally,” dictionaries have added a definition. Now “literally” literally means “figuratively.” When we hear a teenager yelp “I was so surprised my eyes literally popped out of my head!” we can now only sigh and nod. Have you thought that you might be responsible for your words?

Words are slippery. Dictionary definitions are hard enough, growing and twisting like rock crystal (when you say “That’s fantastic!” do you ever think how the word used to mean “existing only in one’s imagination?”). But in addition we’re expected to keep track of the wild fluctuation of a word’s connotation, the knapsack (or steamer trunk) of emotional content loaded onto every syllable.

Language remains vibrant through play and change, but all of this ambiguity can make us skeptical of words having any concrete meaning at all. This cynicism grows each time we encounter an over-slick salesperson, a Ponzi-schemer, or a “post-truth” politician. Our culture reiterates: talk is cheap. Don’t take words at their face value. Get it in writing and read the small print. Anti-fascist philosopher Theodor Adorno sighed “Presumably the abuse of language is so much a part of [our current age’s] flesh and blood that it could never be made to give it up.”

But the misuse and abuse of language — from clueless imprecision to flat-out dishonesty — can be bad for an organization (that’s “bad” as in “bad,” not “bad” as in “cool”). Plato writes that one of Socrates’s final reminders to his friends was: “The misuse of language is not only distasteful in itself, but actually harmful to the soul.” Even if you’re not worrying about harm to your soul, you might consider the social cost of abusing language. The Plain English Campaign reports that most people feel distress when encountering those in legal, financial, academic, and political professions, due to their use of distortion and “gobbledygook.”

And of course, there is also the harm irresponsible speech can do to your organization, such as employee distrust and dissatisfaction, misunderstandings, failed projects — or even lawsuits and criminal charges.

It’s time to consider ways we might be irresponsible with our words, and how we can fix the problem.

How are we irresponsible with words?

Lies

Obviously a flat-out lie is an abuse of language. But even though we’ve all been told it’s wrong, research suggests that in ten minutes of conversation with someone new we’ll tell an average of three lies.

These may be white lies we tell out of politeness (though there’s evidence that even these can do damage) — but often they are intended to protect ourselves instead. These lies fulfill deep psychological needs, tied to our anxieties and insecurities. The need to inflate our self-esteem and impress others is particularly prevalent in the workplace, which is perhaps why research shows people are more likely to lie to co-workers than to strangers, and why office emails in particular are a den of deception.

This is particularly astonishing since co-workers will continue to be in our lives — meaning we have to constantly monitor, remember, and defend all of our lies to them. In the meantime, our organization continues to be undermined by dishonesty.

Distortion and Diversion

Sometimes words fall short of intentional deception but still fiddle with or skirt the truth. Distortion and diversion often crop up when the facts sound too unpleasant or unflattering. They also show up when the truth is too complex and slightly outside of our grasp: in an attempt to sound competent in the situation, we’ll talk around a problem, or use ambiguous terms. All of these tendencies decrease the chances of success for shared projects. This environment is also the natural habitat of the euphemism (you might feel fine about being on a “Disposition Matrix” until you find out it means a military “kill list”).

Overconfidence

We’ve all had the sense that the most successful people “fake it till they make it.” But when it comes to your collaborators, what faking it typically makes is a toxic work environment. There is a level of appropriate confidence and assertiveness in the workplace, but when the need to sound confident pushes us to speak with unwarranted certainty, we’re setting down traps for our organization, our clients, and ourselves.

Some Jargon

Jargon really just refers to technical terms, and can be valuable for functioning with clarity and efficiency within a profession. But when jargon crosses over into conversation with clients or others who might not share your profession’s vocabulary, it can begin to obscure communication instead.

More dangerous is when jargon from different fields seeps into spaces where it doesn’t belong, often to be misused. This is especially a danger with business jargon and “management speak,” with its repetition of “synergy,” “best practices,” “scalability,” and other terms that blur meaning and numb the brains of listeners.

Perhaps this was what George Orwell was referring to when he complained of the “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” in the English language, that leads to “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Jargon, catch-phrases, and cliches can all confuse or mislead an audience.

Becoming responsible — before, during, and after speaking

Before

Before you speak, do your homework. This doesn’t mean you have to find all the answers, but that you should be as aware as possible of what answers you don’t have, and which ones need more work. Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s warnings about the dangers of “unknown unknowns.” Run through the evidence you have for your conclusions and recognize where there are gaps in knowledge or cause for doubt.

While speaking

While speaking, monitor your words for lies and distortions. Notice when a subject makes you squirm with discomfort or insecurity — this is a sign that you need to be extra diligent to speak clearly and fully. The pain of saying uncomfortable things now will be small compared to the pain of being responsible for a project’s demise later on.

Don’t let your confidence or desire for something to be true excite you into speaking with excess certainty. Speak only what you can back-up, using hedges and caveats where appropriate.

After speaking

After speaking, issue any corrections or qualifiers as soon as possible. Remember that even the best journalists need to issue corrections — it might be embarrassing, but it’s not nearly as destructive as delaying it or refusing to do so.

But beyond any of this, commitment to this first axiom means accepting the consequences of your words. Even if they aren’t written down and nobody notarized them, you should accept the credit or blame that results from the words you speak.

Part of this value is also holding others responsible for their words. When you think they are abusing language in one of the ways mentioned above, you owe it to yourself, to them, and to co-workers and clients to hold the speaker responsible. This also means you should acknowledge and encourage those who are speaking with clarity or admitting uncomfortable truths.


Even as language continues to shift and grow, taking responsibility for what comes out of our mouths can create a safe space for our work — a shelter against the culture’s “cheap talk,” to build trust, collaboration, and the ability to speak words that are worth something.