employee engagement

Your Words Have Lost Their Meaning to Your Employees

Words matter. And you have to understand their impact to understand how you are engaging (or not engaging) with your colleagues.

Are the words you use to inspire new ideas or to brand new programs, really having the affect you think?

The “revenge effect” or “revenge technology” is when a piece of technology performs the opposite effect of what it’s intended. For example, car alarms. When those squawking audio screams were first introduced, people would immediately crane their neck and look around, possibly get in “attack mode” for any criminal that might dare to try and steal a near by car. Now? It’s the most annoying sound in the world that often inspires the gripe, “Who the hell still has a car alarm?” Or “Turn that damn thing off!”

Unfortunately, there is also a “revenge effect” on words that are misused or over used. Especially in the workplace. Senior management, executive or HR fixate on a word and repeat it as a sort of shorthand in trying to inspire change in their organization. While trying to craft a message that is easy, clear and memorable, a word will be chosen that sums up that intended feeling. Unfortunately, people get lazy and start using those words over and over and over again at any opportunity. Until it loses meaning entirely, leading to possible contempt or ambivalence.

Enter “buzzwords” – a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context. (dictionary.com)

But what if that “particular time” is far past its expiry date? Or that “particular context’ no longer applies? But if feels like once an organization gets a hold of their favourite word for their communication, it’s like they invented it and don’t want to ever let it go.

I asked my community (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), what word has lost its meaning for them due to misuse or over use. Their list:

  • Arbitrage
  • Innovation
  • Curate
  • Disruption
  • Influencer
  • Thought leader
  • Resonate
  • Dialogue
  • Authenticity
  • 100%
  • Engagement
  • Inclusive
  • Paradigm
  • Sustainability
  • Streamline
  • Synergy
  • Takeaway
  • Low hanging fruit
  • Work-balance
  • Priceless
  • Expert
  • Transformative

Have you heard these words more than enough times yourself? What these respondents is telling us is that every time they hear one of these words used (in a presentation, at a meeting, in an email, etc.), they are more likely either to become numb or eye roll at the implication, rather than feel some sense of motivation or direction.

Words matter.

As you communicate to your colleagues, be more mindful of what words you use and if they’re having the impact you intend. Here are some ideas on how to combat the “revenge effect” of meaningless words:

1) Link the Words to Relevant Case Studies – one of the big reasons these words die on a vine is because they aren’t tied to anything the audience feels connected to. You may talk of innovation, but if you don’t provide examples of your organization actually being innovative, then it erodes the message. If this word is meant to have any meaning, operationally collect case studies that reinforce its importance. And make sure you refresh that list frequently. Having a case study from 5 years ago, may only communicate that it was important then, it’s not important now. It’s like the 40 year old that still uses high school stories to illustrate his or her worth.

2) Value from the Messenger – Show, don’t tell. We get comfortable using phrases like “work/life balance” but make sure it’s the right person delivering your message. Are they preaching this balance while working 75 hour workweeks? How much stock is an employee going to put into a manager talking about “low hanging fruit” when they are known as a bottleneck to productivity rather than someone who supports and provides results. Or uses “engagement” when they only communicate through corporate emails. Rather than killing the messenger, the messenger is killing the message.

3) Use a Thesaurus – credible, official, legit, trustworthy, original, authoritative, convincing, reliable… all Thesaurus.com words for “authentic.” If you want to express the meaning, more than the word, look at other ways of communicating it. Of course if you don’t consider the two other ideas I’ve mentioned above, this will just seem like you’re scattered or trying to avoid the pertinence (thesaurus speak for “relevance”) of your words.

Any words I didn’t include that have lost their meaning for you? Or tactics you recommend to combat this problem? The comments below are all ears.

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