This is a brief follow-up to the post, The power of words, on this blog.
Recently I posted a question on Faceboook and Twitter about the origin of the phrase “hold teams accountable.” The phrase is used frequently in “agile” circles. The only answer anyone suggested was that it probably pre-dates the agile movement, as managers have been thinking in terms of holding people in one sort of grip or another for a long time.
But that single answer was not the only response to the question (uh-oh; another pair of words, there).
Many people used the question as a launching pad for a discussion of the meaning of the word, “accountable.” It seems there are many opinions and a good deal of emotion on the subject.
After sleeping on it, it occurred to me the disagreement about the meaning of the word “accountable” is symptomatic of different perspectives about words and meanings. There seem to be two perspectives at play:
- The meaning of a word is fully described by its dictionary definition. If we are to achieve clear communication, then we must limit our use of words to their dictionary definition. If the other party doesn’t know the dictionary definition, then refer them to the nearest dictionary.
- The meaning of a word is partly described by its dictionary definition, and partly by its effect on people. If we are to achieve clear communication, then we must consider the effect of words on people. If we use a “trigger” word that sends the other party on a tangent, we haven’t communicated effectively.
When I posed the question I had a specific context in mind. Most of the people who are connected with me on social media are in the same line of work as I am, so I don’t always clarify the context of my online comments. Maybe I should have done so in this case.
The context is organizational transformation and coaching work. The meaning of the phrase “hold accountable” in that context is that management is going to blame you for anything and everything that doesn’t go well. The reason people react to the phrase in this way is that it has been their lived experience throughout their adult lives.
As an organizational change consultant and coach, I’m aligned with perspective #2 on the subject of words and their meanings.
If I choose a word that causes a reaction that leads people to stall in their improvement program, and I have to spend days or weeks trying to “talk them down from the ledge” by explaining again and again what the word is supposed to mean according to a dictionary, then my work is not progressing during that time. What is the usefulness or value in that?
I have to wonder whether change agents who ignore the effect of words on people are functioning as responsible professionals, or if they have to be held accountable for the damage done by their choice of words.