To Solve Problems, Have the Courage to Name Names.

I inherited my team. They were a broken team with a historically high turnover. There was no clean slate. I had to work with what I had been dealt and slowly develop talent or bake it in through hiring.

My team and I had to gain trust quickly, as we were up against the clock to solve a set of complex problems that required the best in all of us. Predictably, there were daily “kinks” in communication, as we failed to properly translate each other’s intentions and made far too many assumptions on work priorities. After hearing the word “somebody” one too many times, I decided that my team needed to be crystal clear on one of my key operating instructions, and fast.

Language matters. Our words define us and make us who we are. They either connect or dismantle us. My operating instructions are undergirded by one golden rule concerning the use of language:

Eliminate ambiguity.

It’s harder than you think. Eliminating ambiguity in our team communication meant that we couldn’t settle for vague, nondescript, generic communication when we were trying to resolve an issue. I refer to this type of language in another post as “hot air.” It was contaminating our group’s ability to authentically connect, solve problems, and perform at our best. Hot air language speaks less to solving a problem and more to hiding, playing it safe, and hinting at an issue without empowering anyone around us to solve it. Hot air words interrupt us, and ultimately are just in the way.

“Somebody, no one, anyone, everyone” were standing in the way of our authentic problem solving and speed to solutions.

So, we had a conversation around the idea that if you are on my team and really want to help, you had to have the courage to use specific names when solving a problem. When we are in problem solving mode, it is no longer an acceptable practice in our organization to drop these indefinite articles such as someone, somebody, anybody, nobody. They stymie the progression of the conversation and undermine our ability to solve a problem timely.

What happens when one of us drops a “somebody” when we are problem solving? We acknowledge it by looking over at a cardboard cutout, a ghost employee in the business, who has been created out of fear. We’ve learned to laugh at this concept and ourselves. Who is this “somebody” that keeps either getting blamed for something that is wrong or being assigned work that no one else wants to do?

This may seem like a small thing, but it was a big shift for our organization that had been dominated by a fear of candor.

Language is our most fundamental connector as humans. It is our common denominator and carries massive power. It builds us up or breaks us down. And our use of names is integral in our words functioning as strongly as they can. Names are non-negotiable elements of the dialogue. Let’s treat them like that by creating a safe environment for specificity, for naming names and being confident in saying them.