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Let’s drop the empty business buzzwords and get ahead

Vague terms like 'leverage' and 'empower' do not help leaders assign clear tasks

Unsplash/Sven Brandsma
Choose words that are clear and actionable when communicating in the workplace

Leverage. Add value. Empower. What do these three words have in common? They are all used in business pretty much every day and I hate them all equally.

I hate them not because of what they mean but because, in fact, they mean nothing. And this is dangerous. 

One of the things I get to do as part of my job is work with senior leaders at off-sites as a facilitator. It’s my role to ‘herd the cats’ and make sure that, at the end of the event, there is a set of clear and actionable tasks where each task is assigned to one accountable person.

This involves me making sure that the tasks actually mean something – and so verbs like the three above are forbidden. 

This doesn’t always make me popular: people often don’t like to be forced to think deeply. But it does make the time spent away from the regular daily grind and customers worthwhile. 

When we use words like ‘add value’ we give up clarity, and without clarity we avoid conflict.

This might sound like a good thing but, actually, we need conflict to make decisions on what to do because that conflict leads to real agreement and the ability to hold ourselves – and others – accountable.

And it’s only through accountability that we get results. Which is what we’re in business for. 

Should we ‘add value’ by ‘leveraging’ our assets and ’empowering’ our people? Well, yeah. We should also applaud motherhood and apple pie is delicious!

Words that don’t mean much, if anything, allow us to sound like we’re saying something useful and positive. But that’s not how we make good decisions, or how we see them implemented effectively.

When I hear ‘leverage’ or ‘add value’ I ask ‘how?’ and that’s when the conversation starts to get interesting. 

Forcing ourselves and others to be specific means that a real debate can take place about what we’re going to do, why and how.

Inevitably there will be different points of view and the debate might get heated. And that’s not just OK – it’s what we should be aiming for. 

Once the debate has happened and the decision made, those same specific verbs can be used to make sure that things happen, changes are made, decisions implemented and results achieved.

The ultimate goal of language is to build understanding and so vague phrases are counterproductive.

Too often people use them as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others. They’re a verbal sleight of hand that gives us unhelpful wiggle room.

Instead, let’s ‘drill down’ and ‘think outside the box’ so we can grab the ‘low- hanging fruit’ and avoid ‘boiling the ocean’!

Dawn Metcalfe is a workplace culture advisor, trainer and public speaker