Ad Florem Blog

If you don’t get what you ask for, you might be using ‘Fat Words’


Ad Florem Blog Post

How often do you think about the language you use with your teams?

No, I’m not talking about whether you swear or use terms that might be offensive. Just wondering if the words you use mean the same thing to other people as they mean to you.

They often don’t. And when what you think you have said is taken to mean something completely different, things can get complicated.

For example, in my coaching workshops, a leader may share how they’ve asked a member of staff to do a ‘paper’ on X, which they do and deliver it in plenty of time for the deadline. However, the leader sees it doesn’t cover what it needs to and has an unprofessional tone. Knowing she has to present it at an executive meeting the following day, she smiles and thanks the staff member, then proceeds to go home and rewrite the paper herself!

Is this crazy? Should the leader have rewritten the paper herself?

You might be thinking the leader isn’t delegating properly by not handing the paper back for a rewrite, but digging deeper often reveals that the problem lies in the original instruction given to the member of staff.

In my workshops, I use the term ‘Fat Words’ to describe words that seem to say everything, but actually could mean too many different things.

When I’m working with senior leaders in my coaching workshops, we start by defining the term ‘coaching’. What usually follows is a nice colourful mind map with ‘coaching’ in the middle, and lots of words coming off to describe what this means. Job done!

Except, for me, the words are just too big.

They’re ‘fat’ because each of us has attached a different meaning to them based on our experience and to be sure we agree what they mean, they, need breaking down. Otherwise we just end up with vagueness and uncertainty.

For example, we might decide that coaching is about supporting people.

In essence, I agree with this. However, some leaders may think they are supporting people, based on their definition of support, yet their team might not even think of the word support, based on their experience of them.

Another great ‘Fat Word’ which comes up is trust. As a leader, you may think you trust your staff based on your definition and experience of the word, but your staff may say you don’t.

Our perception of the situation is based on our interpretation of the word. And when interpretations are different, engagement can drop, mistakes are made and leaders end up re-doing delegated tasks.

Are you saying what you think you’re saying?

To make sure everyone’s on the same page, leaders need to dig deeper to understand what potential ‘Fat Words’ mean to everyone involved.

When we discuss issues such as staff members producing poor or unprofessional papers, leaders often feel they’ve explained what needs to be done, but digging deeper we discover they’ve given brief instructions in a very short space of time. Sometimes they simply send an email, giving little or no opportunity to question or clarify, and lots of opportunity for misinterpretation!

During our discussions, it became apparent that they were expecting staff to ‘just know’ what was required – after all, they were basic instructions and they’d been working there for enough time. But as we’ve seen, what you think of as a ‘paper’ could mean something completely different to somebody else.

Taking an extra five minutes to involve the team member in the task at the beginning will lead to a better understanding of the task at hand. It also challenges leaders to think about the meaning of the ‘Fat Words’ for them and clarify what it means for the team member, as well as the expectations and outcome of the task. This is a great way to role model engaging behaviours whilst holding the team member accountable for the outcome.

I like it when leaders start to think about their leadership. I LOVE it when they create change and improve engagement in their teams. By identifying ‘Fat Words’ and taking the time to clarify what they mean to everyone involved, they can move from a “Thanks, but no thanks” to, “Thanks, you’ve done a great job”.

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