The contemporary social convention of expecting people to believe what you mean, not what you say, was epitomized by Peter Thiel’s fascinatingly distorted explanation how different groups take Trump seriously or literally, but not both. This has disturbed me at a visceral level since I first encountered the phenomena years ago in certain individuals’ speaking styles, then more broadly in (social) media through the recent US election cycle. Only recently, while re-reading one of my favorite books (Jacques’ Requisite Organization), was I able to articulate why.
Canadian Jazz + Politicized Snoop = Genius.
The first failure of imprecise and inconsistent language is to place the cognitive burden on the listener, rather than the speaker. In a world where discretionary leadership bandwidth is the scarcest commodity, this puts a severe constraint on the growth of any team – large or small. Whether you are speaking to a peer, a manager, or a subordinate, it benefits both parties for the listener to spend the least amount of time and mental effort deciphering your message from among your words. Furthermore, in any role where you expect the listener to convey your message to others, or support your ideas when you are present to defend them personally, any lack of clarity that leads to misinterpretation introduces an unnecessary risk. In short: don’t be lazy when you communicate.
The second failure is to undermine trust, the fundamental component of a functional team. The strength of any team starts with the strength of the one-to-one relationships between its members. Fans of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team will recognize trust as the starting point towards results. If my team member, let’s hypothetically call him Donald, expects me to “take him seriously, but not literally,” can I trust that Donald is going to be consistent in his communications (or even his reasoning) from one conversation to the next? That he is going to represent my ideas and values accurately after he walks out of the room? That he is a reliable source of information for me from elsewhere in the team? These scenarios are just a few of the myriad of examples that will inhibit trust in our relationship, and therefore prevent our team from engaging in constructive conflict, strengthening commitment and accountability, and ultimately focusing on results.
Precise and consistent use of language is a prerequisite of any effective organiation. And it starts with you. Choose your words carefully, use them consistently, and take the time to seek positive confirmation of mutual understanding in your conversations. Nudge your teammates to find a common vocabulary — even if “your” words aren’t the ones that the group ultimately favors. Be brave enough to stop a group discussion if you observe inconsistencies between what people say and what they mean. Investing a few minutes early on will pay back with enormous dividends, as clarity brings efficiency and trust brings results.