Creating a Shared Vocabulary- More than Buzzwords
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Are you sure that your team is speaking clearly and understanding each other?
It is important to make sure everyone in the company has a clear understanding of the words leaders use. It's pretty well established that corporate buzzwords can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Establishing a clear shared corporate vocabulary in your organization - a set of terms, language, and phrases that everyone in the organization uses - provides that clarity
My favorite modern example of how this exists in the wild can be demonstrated with the acronym "CRT." In the education world, this commonly refers to "controlled room temperature," "critical response team," or "criterion-referenced test." Of course, the most popular reference is "critical race theory," which actually isn't something that you hear in the k-12 education space (except for members of the public during board meetings). The meaning depended on which department was requesting funds. As a young school board member, I would get confused as I studied my board materials and saw this acronym used across multiple departments to refer to different things. It's a bad idea for leaders to assume that newcomers to their organization have the bandwidth to ask for clarity.
Unclear communication is damaging to office culture, but it’s also not the only risk of muddy corporate vocabulary. Inside of ambiguity, chaos and poor leadership are given the space to thrive. Toxic leaders weaponize ambiguity and poor communication as a way to maintain a status quo where they are comfortable and have no accountability. At the same time, comfort and ease justify the ongoing use of bad corporate jargon.
Creating a Common Understanding
For a more recent example, let's go back to the concept of strategic planning. I have observed clients across sectors using this term in as many ways as there are examples. It's common for words and phrases to morph and evolve over time; that's how language works. The issue lives between the expectations we have and the assumptions we hold. In most people's day-to-day lives, this isn't a big deal. Still, for business leaders, ambiguity around vocabulary leads to confusion.
In some entities, the governance process of articulating their vision and values may be called strategic planning, goal setting, or, most simply, “visioning.” Board members are most commonly volunteers with no guaranteed grounding in business processes. I recently observed a meeting from a board that I’m coaching and noticed that individual members have begun to ask for clarity when things are not clear. This is a huge step from their old culture of suffering through their confusion for the sake of not wanting to make people feel bad. The thing is, the managers from the organization maintained that they were open to answering questions without judgment. Leaders of effective organizations both ask questions to gain clarity and ask for confirmation to confirm understanding.
A few days before that, I facilitated a training session with leaders of a local non-profit that turned into a lively but respectful debate. The subject? Is strategic planning the governance process where the board sets organizational goals for the Executive Director? Or is it the management process of corporate leaders deciding which strategies will be implemented to reach the larger goals of the organization? Speaking of organizational goals, who sets them? The board? Executive Director? C-suite?
The point isn't a definition. Multiple things can be true at the same time. The critical learning here is that the speaker and the listener have to be on the same page for clarity to be present. This can be applied to pretty much any type of communication issue. If ineffective communication breeds silos and chaos, then effective or clear communication breeds alignment and growth.
Does your workplace struggle with unclear terminology? What are some steps that you can take to help your team bring clarity to the situation? What are some examples of shared vocabulary in your organization?
Hambrick, D. C., Fredrickson J. W., 2005. Are you sure you have a strategy? Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 19, No. 4