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Definitions and meanings

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

2 thoughts on “Definitions and meanings

  1. As the one of primary respondents in the discussion on Facebook that Mr. Nicolette is referring to, I am responding here also.

    The meaning of words (as defined in the dictionary) is crucial to communication, to willfully apply them in inappropriate context is not fostering understanding. The key aspect here is willfully. If a person does not know the meaning of a word, then education is important, but this is not “refer them to a dictionary”, it is having a discussion to achieve understanding and encouragement use of the correct word(s) to convey the intended meaning.

    All words invoke a reaction. In some cases this reaction may be significant, in other cases nearly immeasurable. There are words, especially in a given context, that are almost certain to be “trigger words”. This gives rise to a few distinct situations (“speaker” in the following includes both verbal and written situations).

    In the first case, the speaker knows the proper meaning, and is using the word in that context. In the second case, the speaker is not aware of the proper meaning, and is using (and meaning) the word in some other fashion. In the third case, the speaker is aware of the proper meaning, but is deliberately using the word in some other fashion. Each of these are distinct.

    Given Mr. Nicolette has already stated “had a specific context in mind” yet used the word in a way that is at odds with the dictionary definition, makes this interesting. Like him, a large part of my professional career is in “organizational transformation and coaching work” and I am well aware of the common misconceptions and misapplications of many items. Therefore, I am very careful to explain [I am human, and do not always succeed] my intended meaning at the first usage of such words.

    As an example, I often talk about “agile”. For each audience I spend at least a short period defining if I am using the word in the context of the Manifesto (which for me is most common when capitalized), or the general precepts of “backlog and iteration based development” that commonly uses the same word. The two are quite distinct and using the word without clarification easily can become a “trigger” as the discussion progresses.

    As a professional, I (technically the company I have led for the past 30+ years, but that is about the use of the terms in a legal sense) I am responsible for my actions, and this responsibility includes “giving an account” of the actions I have taken [the meaning of “accountable”]. Many clients select my firm because of word of mouth and the “accounting” they have received from prior clients.

    While the vast majority of contracts have been deemed successful by all parties, there have been those that were not. Trying to attach “blame” or “repercussions” (the most common misuse of the term “held accountable”) is not in anyone’s interest, but understanding the reasons that initial goals were not achieved is. It is in these situations where it is crucial for all parties to “be held accountable”, each providing the information (“account”) of their involvement so that the overall situation can be understood.

    Hopefully, this eliminates any “wondering” on the part of Mr. Nicolette.

    1. I did not reply to this comment at the time. I came across it again just now (2019) while reviewing old content to clean up the site. For what it’s worth, my thoughts on it are as follows:

      • When people call me Mr. Nicolette, I feel old.
      • David acknowledges that some words can be “trigger words” in certain circumstances.
      • David states that education isn’t a question of pointing people to a dictionary, but rather having a conversation to clarify meanings.
      • Okay so far.
      • Yet: In the end he (in effect) points me to the dictionary to “teach” me that I’m wrong to consider “accountable” a trigger word; See? It says so right there in the dictionary: It just means “be able to make an accounting of” something. In other words, “be able to explain what happened.” It’s harmless. It’s value-neutral.
      • It seems he recognizes the same problem with “trigger words” as I do as a general rule, but doesn’t see how the problem manifests in the case of the phrase, “hold accountable.”
      • If I’ve understood correctly, then he insists the word or phrase can only mean what the dictionary says it means, even in the face of peoples’ visceral reactions to it. He would rather spend time explaining the definition of the word, to try and recover from the initial visceral reaction, than to use an alternative word or phrase that doesn’t produce the visceral reaction in the first place. That’s exactly the behavior I was highlighting on the part of many “agile” consultants/coaches. They’re quite steadfast about that, as a community. So: Gratitude for underscoring the point.
      • An observation: There are several words and phrases in the “agile” lexicon that consultants/coaches have to explain over and over again, because they’re triggers for English-speaking (as opposed to Agile-speaking) people. “Hold accountable” is only one example. Here are a few more: https://slides.com/davenicolette/you-keep-using-that-word#/.

      In my opinion, the fact so many people react negatively to “hold accountable” is reason enough to seek other ways to convey the intended meaning. The conventional softening phrase here is “your mileage may vary,” but in fact your mileage will not vary if you continue to try and “hold” people accountable, as opposed to coaching them toward being responsible.

      Responsible people are accountable, among other things, without having to be “held” (implicity: against their will or by force) by anyone else. And if a coach doesn’t effect that change in coachees, what will they do after he/she leaves? Can they cultivate personal responsibility, if they’ve merely been “held accountable” up until then? I’ll take bets on that, if anyone wants to give me money for free.

      Maybe it would be interesting (and maybe it wouldn’t) to mention that my employer at the time had a standard definition of “hold accountable” to use with clients, and it aligns with David’s perspective. I was at odds with my own employer regarding the potential negative impact of “hold accountable” as a trigger word (or phrase). My observation was (and still is) that this happened repeatedly with multiple clients, and yet the company’s official view remained glued to the dictionary, with no willingness to consider how the phrase was received by real people. The “official” or de facto interpretation across the “agile” community also seems to be dictionary-bound, despite their claim to be people-focused. Go figure.

      That said, I don’t really care if “agile” consultants/coaches change the way they speak. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. Just making observations. As far as I’m concerned, everyone remains free to generate whatever observations their choices naturally generate. And I’ll remain free to make observations accordingly.

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