Would you stay on an airplane that was about to take-off if the pilot said the following as part of their pre-flight announcement:
“This is your captain speaking. We are about to take off, we’re just waiting for the fuel truck to finish refueling us. They had an issue with fuel earlier on, but I am confident they’ll give us enough fuel for our flight… In addition, as you can see the weather isn’t great out there. Nevertheless, we have a strong aircraft that can withstand the storm, let’s just hope we don’t encounter any lightning…”
Would you put your brain, heart, eyes or any part of your body under the knife of a surgeon who came across in your pre-surgery consultation as lacking clarity, rigor, knowledge or confidence?
I don’t believe you would tolerate any level of approximate or vague measures when your life is at stake. You would want absolute clarity, precision, and transparency.
So, why do we tolerate so much vagueness and lack of clear, explicit and rigorous conversations in business?
This may sound strange to you, but one of the reasons teams find it so hard to drive alignment, ownership and effective collaboration in important strategies and plans is because people simply don’t speak plain English.
I don’t mean that people don’t speak the English language. I mean that people in corporations tend to talk about important things in a conceptual, vague, unclear and convoluted corporate language.
To say it politely, there are too many professional slogans, acronyms, and other jargon, shortcut phrases, and noun-type words and too little plain-old direct, explicit and articulate conversations. I see this dynamic all over the globe.
For example, people say things like: ‘We want to be Best in Class‘, but it is hard to tell if that means ‘best among their peers in the industry’, ‘best among other teams in their company’ or ‘much better than they are today’?
Or, people say: “We need to upgrade our talent”, but do they mean to fire the poor performers, hire new people, train everyone, improve specific systems and tools, or all of the above?
Phrases such as: “operational excellence”, “customer excellence” and/or “enablement” what do they mean??! You may jump and say: “I know what these mean!”. However, I assure you that if I asked another 10 people around you they most likely would have 10 different takes.
Everyone assumes that everyone else understands what is said and what it meant. However, more often than not that is completely not the case.
Then everyone goes off to do things in their own way, and then people wonder why not all team members are aligned, on board and owning the strategy and rowing in the same direction.
There is a big difference between plain language and corporate language. The latter is a language of high-level, implicit and vague clarity.
You would think that with so much at stake within the business world people would want to leave nothing to chance. However, experience shows that leaders actually prefer to leave declarations, commitments, promises and expectations at a general and vague level.
It enables them to stay off the hook and eases the pressure of committing to things unequivocally. After all, if you define things too clearly it becomes crystal clear what you’re saying, what you stand for, what you are committing to, and what you are accountable for. But, if you leave things more general it gives you wiggle room, especially when facing adversity.
At the core, it’s not a language issue. It is a commitment issue.
So often when supporting teams in creating their strategic plan I listen to the dialogue and even though I am not an expert in their field I can immediately tell that their inability to converse in plain language is hindering their ability to think, create and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively.
Simply by asking: “So, what do you mean by that?” everyone realizes that different people have different assumptions and interpretations about what is being said and what it could mean.
My questions are often met with a blank stare or a long-winded response, which only further illuminates the lack of clarity. In other times, I get a barrage of different, sometimes even opposing responses from different team members, which again emphasizes the point.
People seem to be so entrenched in the conceptual noun-based language-style used in PowerPoint presentations that they seem unable to move away from this style when conversing and interacting face-to-face.
The typical corporate language is sufficient for perpetuating the ordinary and status quo. However, if you have bolder ambitions in mind of being extraordinary – the ‘best of the best’ and/or taking your game to a new level, you better challenge the vague corporate language norm and start promoting and demanding a new level of simple, straightforward and rigorous dialogue.