Practice verbal hygiene!

A lot is expected of employees: they are expected to think systemically, illuminate developments from different perspectives and integrate diverse opinions, communicate inclusively and make agile decisions - how do you maintain focus and impact in this jungle of adjectives?

Adjectives describe. They explain, demand or specify an implicit expectation of an action. For example, leaders should not just think, but think systemically. They should not only communicate goals in an understandable way, but also in an inclusive way. Any number of other examples could be given here. What they have in common is the attempt to achieve a certain effect in leadership. They are based on a wide variety of models and theories. They assume that this and that specification of an action is decisive and significant for the successful leadership effect in a system.

Unfortunately, these specifications do not only increase the awareness for a relevant topic, but they also create problems: I increasingly observe that leaders who want to shape are rather slowed down, while leaders who actually should not lead (anymore) are (still) spared. How can this be?

When is good good enough?

Till Jansen notes in his article in zfo (1/22) that although people don’t know what good is, they seem to agree that good is always good. However, that the good always also brings the bad with it. Thus, (previous) demands on quality suddenly stand in the way of a modern innovation process, or a solid investment policy is thwarted by MVP-driven argumentation.

“The will to do good does not necessarily make things better. “

In the context of leadership, adjectives always describe good in terms of culturally accepted and expected actions. And, in most cases, they spring from originally well-intentioned initiatives. The obvious conclusions are therefore: more of something is always good or better. With scales that are open to the top, goal achievement or sustainable behavioral change becomes delicate. For when is good good enough? Often a “better than before” is not enough. Rather, these rather diffuse expectations are continuously screwed upwards. This is understandable for those who stand behind the expectations or demands. But if improvement steps are only accepted as intermediate goals, it becomes difficult to maintain the momentum for these changes. Because you will only open up to an agile mindset if it leads to something recognizably positive and not just to a reduction of bad things.

Therefore, it seems to me not only useful or helpful, but absolutely central, that you determine for yourself and also in the company what an adjective means and how it should be implemented in the company or how employees can recognize that they are behaving in the sense of this adjective (and thus “well”). So what does inclusive communication mean? And where should “agile” show itself? And especially where not? Help leaders find their way by advocating clarity. Because there is rarely one clear clarity - it is usually highly context-specific. Moreover, this clarity will support leaders in using their strengths to shape and engage the system.

Insufficient becomes acceptable

Unfortunately, adjectives with their open-ended scales also create room for excuses. While some strive to change their behavior for the better (but never know if and when they are actually behaving “well”), others use the open scales to position the smallest changes as successes and put further demands on the back burner. The lack of clarity in the adjectives creates a situation in which behavior that is actually insufficient becomes respectable, because it is not the result itself that is talked about, but only the change. Thus, some inclusion already becomes “good,” although more proactive leaders would actually have achieved more under the same conditions. Any discussion about a goal achievement, however formulated, becomes absurd as long as you do not succeed in leaving the meta-level and filling these adjectives with concrete content. And so leaders who should not or no longer lead remain in their positions and prevent, slow down or undermine your efforts to actively shape your leadership and collaboration culture.

Now, some may rightly object that they have better things to do all day long than spend time on these quibbles - for example, if they work in a tightly scheduled project environment. If there is a high density of interaction (numerous meetings, agreements, exchanges, …), it is probably easier to fill words with a content that can be experienced. If these possibilities disappear (as during the Covid pandemic) and employees have access to an infinite amount of information about these adjectives at the click of a mouse, they will choose the version that suits them best - we would probably all do the same. As a leader - and I am addressing you specifically in your role as a system designer - you can and should therefore offer employees orientation and describe and clarify the meaning of these adjectives from the company’s perspective.

An example: Let’s say a company wants employees to communicate transparently. What is meant by this? Should employees not lie, should they play their cards close to their chest, should they emphasize the risks as well as the opportunities? Should managers say today which jobs will no longer be needed tomorrow? Or should wages be disclosed to everyone? And what would be examples of non-transparent communication? What exceptions are there and for what reasons?

Verbal hygiene shapes culture

When we say something, we have usually thought about it beforehand. For example, if employees say something negative about a customer, they have more or less accurately formed an opinion about it. For example, the customer is “tedious”, “petty”, “complicated” or “can’t make up his mind”. In short, the customer is described and this description settles in the minds of the employees and influences their behavior. If you don’t break this unfortunate cycle, it will soon be considered normal in the company to talk shit about this customer - and sooner or later the customer will certainly notice.

You can break this cycle by providing targeted feedback focused on these descriptions - packaged as a question: “What do you mean by “complicated”? Then you can ask more questions: “What do you think this customer needs from us?” or “How can you help the customer move forward more quickly or easily?” Your questions help employees gain a different perspective - and in the example above, a different description for the customer.

Leadership tasks usually manifest themselves through interactions, ultimately through words. These take hold. If they are unclear, unhappily loaded, or even unacceptable, they influence opinions and subsequently behaviors that may harm you and the company. It’s not about imposing regulations and restricting freedom of expression. Rather, it’s about proactively addressing and clarifying descriptions. This form of verbal hygiene shapes their culture far more comprehensively than the next summer party.

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