One of the down sides of mixing the richness of language, and the intelligence and creativity generally represented by successful managers, is the jargon, acronyms, and occasional gobble-de-gook that passes for effective manager communication in many organizations.

Especially in most large organizations, there are so many alphabetical acronyms that it is almost impossible to keep up as each new sub-organization, program, or initiative is immediately translated into 3 or 4 letters, which are then sounded out as if they were real words. In a similar vein, broadly suggestive words, concepts, and phrases — or word adaptations — are often substituted for simpler modes of expression. For example:

instantiate, concretize, operationalize, synergize, re-engineer, leverage, actionable, tipping point, bandwidth, organizational DNA, user-friendly, game changer, thought leader, touch base, organizational architecture, down-size, right-size, blue sky, and the always popular drink the cool aid.

While most of us come to understand the acronyms and what is generally intended by all the jargon, the majority of your subordinates simply tune it out as “management speak”. If you listen to your subordinates in conversation, you quickly realize they do not speak this way with each other.

Moreover, from the your subordinate’s point of view, jargon, acronyms, and abstractions are of little value. They crave specifics; what do you precisely want, how many of them, by when,  how often, and how will you judge quality. Why are these questions important to them? Because, in most cases, their performance evaluation depends on concrete, observable, measurable deliverables not abstractions.

Managers face the same challenge when they encourage subordinates to demonstrate qualities, especially those that are the hallmark of high performing organizations – leadership, initiative, creativity, passion, and teamwork. Statements like “We could sure use more leadership around here”, “how about showing a little more initiative if you want to get promoted”, or “what we need is a little more creative thinking on this project” sound sufficiently motivational but what behaviors does the manager really have in mind? Alone these qualities are simply labels that derive real meaning for most subordinates only when attached to specific observable behavior they can understand.

So managers, when talking to your subordinates, speak plainly and describe what you want done in behavioral terms as often as you can. When you want more leadership, creative thinking, or initiative, provide some examples of observed behavior you and your subordinate have seen that is worthy of that label.  Most of us can all learn to emulate behavior we have seen, especially if it is consistently rewarded.

One thing I have always admired about baseball is that excellence is so easily measured in precise, observable ways. A pitcher can either throw strikes and a 95 mph fast ball or he can’t. A hitter’s batting average either exceeds .300, or it doe not. Managers rarely can define what they want with that sort of precision. However, the better you get at being concrete and specific and at translating abstractions and labels into observable, measurable behavior, the better you will get at evaluating subordinate performance in meaningful ways.   More importantly, subordinate compliance with your instructions increases substantially when they know exactly what it is you really want to see.

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