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Tricksy words are worse than gibberish!
November 22, 2021   |  Articles

Tricksy Words

Before ever working together, one of my favorite clients and I bonded over a fascination (and perhaps frustration) around how differently the same words can be interpreted by different people.  I jokingly called these words “Tricksy Words” and shared that my personal passion began when I was given responsibility for a “Quality” team. The challenge immediately resonated with my client, confirming for me that while “Quality” may be a common word that trips up organizations, it is just one of many examples. 

A few weeks ago, the same client asked for a list of such words and I quickly realized that building a complete list would be a Sisyphean task.  Instead, I turned my energy towards the hunt for an algorithm.  A few conversations and some self-reflection later, my Tricksy Words Philosophy was born.

Before I jump right to the algorithm, I’d like to share a few of the words that leapt immediately onto the list before I understood the futility of the task: Quality, Excellence, Collaboration, Respect.

I quickly realized that what these words all have in common is their “loftiness”.  These are concepts that are generally considered positive and aspirational.  They can be an important and valuable shorthand for reminding a community or organization of a shared vision *but* without a clear articulation of that vision/ideal/goal available somewhere behind the scenes, these words can generate very different ideals in different people’s minds.

This led me to the following guideline: If the dictionary definition is sufficient to explain what you (as a leader) mean when you use a particular word, then it is not tricksy.  If, however, your team members would require some specific knowledge beyond what is available in the dictionary to achieve what you have in mind, you have found a tricksy word!  If you want to avoid falling prey to confusion down the line, it is also worth your time to make sure that that additional information is available.

So coming back to the examples I listed above, the dictionary didn’t tell me what “quality” meant for an HD map.  The dictionary isn’t helping a professional services client decide whether “excellence” means “simplified communication” or “speed” – which are proving to be in conflict.  Another nonprofit client of mine is learning that putting “collaboration” first is easier said than done when one person’s version of “active collaboration” is another person’s “terse conversation”.  Running face first into the need for the Platinum Rule has taught me that “respect” can manifest in very different ways across cultures.

Taken altogether, I highly recommend that any organization take a fresh look at their Mission / Vision / Values / Goals and highlight the keywords.  Run each of those keywords through the Dictionary Test and you will find yourself with a personalized list of Tricksy Words.  Once your words are identified, ask yourself if the “bonus definition” information is easily accessible to all team members.  If so, congratulations!  If not, perhaps you have some homework ahead of you…

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