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