Skip to content Skip to Search
Skip navigation
  • Opinion

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Empty words could dilute your business mission and drive away valuable employees

Employers as well as employees should choose their words carefully Creative Commons
Employers as well as employees should choose their words carefully

Last month I wrote about how leaders who want to build strong effective cultures need to enable people to speak up when they see something wrong.

But what happens when they don’t and something goes wrong? 

I have lived my entire adult life in countries where people from different cultures – with different languages – come together. Oftentimes some words mean different things, even when everybody is coming from a good place. 

Depending on where and when you’re from (as well as lots of other filters) words such as “late”, “respectful” or “professional” can mean different things.

And that’s why I beg organisations who are trying to define their culture to explain what such terms mean.

In other words, I ask them to spell out what behaviours they want to see and what behaviours are unacceptable. 

But “unacceptable” is one of those words. I’m so bored and depressed by hearing that something “unacceptable” is, in fact, accepted.

Words must have integrity and some kind of agreed meaning if we are to communicate effectively. 

I assumed “unacceptable” meant not acceptable, i.e. we won’t accept behaviour like this and if we see it, we will eradicate it. Apparently not.

According to the dictionary there is a second meaning and most organisations appear to take this as the one they prefer. This is: “not pleasing or welcome”.

That’s a very different meaning. That means I can do a lot of things that are not pleasing or welcome and keep my job. At a push, it means I can do things that aren’t pleasing or welcome and get promoted. 

Another phrase that seems to be misunderstood is to “take responsibility”.

This is a verb rather than an adjective so it’s less likely to be interpreted differently across cultures but it seems equally likely to end up meaning nothing.

According to my dictionary “take responsibility” means “having an obligation to do something”or “being the primary cause”.

Yet too often we see people saying they “take responsibility” but actually doing nothing and certainly not admitting that they are the primary cause of a problem. 

Words have meaning. Or at least they should. And “being unacceptable” or “taking responsibility” should have consequences. If they don’t, then what does that mean?

What does it tell our people when we tell them that bullying, rudeness, lateness, sexism or racism is unacceptable and yet they see it happen every day? 

What does it tell them when we say that we take reasonability for something and yet nothing happens and we appear not to suffer any consequences?

It tells them that we are not to be trusted. It tells them that we are not serious in what we say and – guess what? – they are right. 

Now maybe you don’t care. That’s your right, of course, but if you work in an industry where you need to hire the best and want to keep them (that’s most industries); if you spend time waxing lyrical about the “war for talent” then you  absolutely should care about language integrity.

It’s increasingly true that both employees and customers care about being able to trust the companies they work for and buy from. 

Words may not have consequences but actions or inactions do.

How big a credibility gap is there between what you say and what you do? What are you prepared to live with? What about your people? Your customers? 

Dawn Metcalfe is a Dubai-based workplace culture advisor

Latest articles

Turkey foreign property sales

Foreigners turning back on Turkish real estate

Foreign buyers are increasingly shunning the Turkish property market, wary of high prices, the expensive cost of living and a less welcoming environment for overseas real estate investors. There were only 2,064 residential units sold to foreign buyers in May, 35 percent down on the same month last year, data issued by the state statistics […]

Adult, Male, Man

UAE to invest in Turkey’s economic sectors says minister

The UAE is willing to invest across numerous sectors in Turkey, said Emirati energy and infrastructure minister Suhail Al Mazrouei. The Gulf state is exploring opportunities in the energy, agriculture, transportation, tourism and other sectors, state-run Anadolu Agency (AA) news agency reported, citing the minister on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. […]

Opec Secretary General Haitham Al Ghais says peak oil 'is not on the horizon'

Upstream oil and gas ‘needs more annual investment’

Annual capital expenditure for exploration and production in the upstream sector of the oil industry needs to increase by 22 percent by 2030 because of growing demand and cost inflation, experts say. A cumulative $4.3 trillion needs to be invested between 2025 and 2030, according to a report by the International Energy Forum (IEF) and […]

Rothschild Saudi

Edmond de Rothschild to run funding vehicle for Saudi projects

The Edmond de Rothschild Group is establishing a funding vehicle for infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia along with the local firm SNB Capital, as part of a deal in which the Swiss investment bank will set up offices in the country.  Saudi Arabia’s massive economic diversification programme has run into financial obstacles as it faces […]