One of the most fun aspects of blogging has been re-immersing myself in language. At work, language is just something you use; you don’t scrutinize it. Yet, the (mis)use of language has a lot to do with effectiveness at work or in any collaborative context.
I don’t mean jargon; rather, I’m talking about the slippery language we use when we ask for or respond to requests to do something. Kids, of course, quickly master getting their way through exploiting language loopholes: if I don’t ask my 6-year-old son in precise, unambiguous language to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do (say, make his bed), he won’t do it, and tell me it’s my fault because I wasn’t clear.
He’s onto something there. Too often, I haven’t been clear in what I request from others at work; be they subordinates, peers or other colleagues. I also interpret as a clear “yes” words that don’t, in fact, mean that. (My son is not faultless, however. Too often I’ll blow off requests with half-hearted responses, such as saying “OK,” meaning “I understand you,” instead of “yes, I will do that.”) Imagine this brief conversation:
“I need that report by Friday. Does that make sense?”
There are two fundamental problems with the above conversation. The requester has not specifically asked her colleague to hand in the report by Friday, and the colleague has not really agreed to anything. Let’s fill out the dialogue as the requester would have it – annotations in [brackets]:
“I need that report by [the end of the day] Friday [and I need you do complete it and get it to me]. Does that make sense? [Will you do that? Are there any questions before you get started?]”
“Sure. [I understand what you want and I will get it to you by close of business Friday.]“
Here’s how the colleague might fill in the blanks:
“I need that report by Friday. [If you don't have anything pressing, could you try to get it to me?]”
“Sure. [I have a lot of work already planned. If I get a free moment I'll try to work on it some. But no guarantees.]“
It’s obvious that this story won’t end happily. And it is replayed again and again, in all companies, all over the world.
If the above has piqued your curiosity, you must read this article in the new Strategy + Business magazine, covering the work of Fernando Flores (”Fernando Flores Wants To Make You An Offer“). Flores is a philosopher of communication who over the past thirty years has worked to understand and shape how people communicate to convey information or accomplish tasks.
The S+B article dwells on Flores’ personal story (former Chilean political prisoner, to successful US-based management consultant, to current member of Chile’s senate), but to me the discussion of his research and consulting work is most interesting.
Flores says, “Human beings are linguistic, social, emotional animals that co-invent a world through language.” And in his consulting practice he helped companies codify their communication to increase clarity of meaning. Central to this is the idea of offers, promises and commitments. Requests must be explicitly phrased as such, and commitments to do something are expected to be fulfilled.
As companies grow in size and scope, and communication becomes more virtual, the ability to hind behind weak requests and noncommittal responses will only increase. Therefore, the need for co-workers to become more explicit about their requests, and responders about their commitments, is urgent. It’s important for companies to recognize that, but I think each of us as individuals can get started, with our without company support.
Your company and career need you to do this. Will you? Is that a promise?