3 Powerful Leadership Lessons From General Semantics And Media Ecology

Media Ecology, General Semantics and Leadership

What do general semantics and media ecology have to do with Leadership? That’s a good question.

Media ecology is the study of media as environments. One way to explain it comes out of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message.”

His statement means that the content of a message is secondary to the medium (or platform) through which that content gets communicated. We get meaning from the content, but what really affects us most is the medium.

The fact that we engage content through a television or iPad as opposed to a book, for example, makes a huge difference in how our brains are wired. It makes a difference in how we think.

Why? Because the process of our neural development — how our brain is wired or conditioned — differs depending upon the type of media we use. Books structure our thinking patterns differently than TV. And TV structures our thinking differently than listening to a speech.

This doesn’t mean that the actual content in a message is unimportant. Only that the medium is important. And that we don’t usually think about how a medium affects us when we consume content.

So basically, media ecology scholars look at how the environment of media affects our lives. How it transforms our neurological processes. How it changes a culture.

General Semantics relates well to media ecology because General Semantics has to do with how we employ language. Language, as a medium, structures our thinking in the same way. The language we use and the words we say affect our thinking. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

I recently interviewed Dr. Lance Strate of Fordham University about media ecology, General Semantics and the idea of success. In talking about defining our success, Lance went on to explain IFD disease.

IFD disease stands for idealization, frustration, and demoralization and it comes out of the work of semanticist Wendell Johnson. Johnson said that idealization (I) leads to frustration (F) which, if repeated enough, leads to demoralization (D).

Johnson’s work echoes what the founder of General Semantics Alfred Korzbyski said about unrealized expectations. In his book Science and Sanity, Korzbyski said this:

“In life, numerous serious ‘hurts’ occur precisely because we do not appreciate some natural shortcomings and expect too much. Expecting too much leads to very harmful semantic shocks, disappointments, suspicions, fears, hopelessness, helplessness, pessimism, etc.”

Unrealistic expectations (idealization) when they are unfulfilled leads to greater frustration. The more this happens, the more we get demoralized. I. F. D. disease.

So, how do we combat this and what does it have to do with leadership? Primarily, leaders who don’t understand this process will inevitably fall victim to the disease.

How many people get frustrated when team members, business associates, or even unforeseen circumstances seem to confound or derail their expectations? And what happens when this occurs over extended periods of time?

So, how can leaders help others to avoid the pitfalls of IFD disease? Here are some of the things that Dr. Strate mentioned as solutions.

1. Develop “Operational Definitions.”

Alfred Korzybski developed General Semantics as a way to apply scientific principles to the abstractions of language. He thought that not knowing exactly what we mean when we say something caused problems in life.

Scientists regularly use operational definitions — clear, concise detailed definitions of a measure — in their research. These are particularly important when determining whether something is correct or incorrect in their conclusions. How can you know if something happens if you haven’t defined it accurately?

When we apply the same principle to areas outside of scientific research we can see some benefits. Operational definitions can help leaders because they force us to define things clearly and accurately. Many times we ask employees to do things and what we mean doesn’t always equal what they understand.

This is because of the nature of words. Words don’t always have consistent, rock solid meanings. Their meanings can evolve over time. For example, what the word “success” means to you may not be what it means to someone else. And what it means now may be different than what it meant 5 years ago.

Operational definitions help to put everyone on the same page. When we talk about the success of a project, giving a clear and accurate definition of that success enables everyone to know if the project succeeded or if it didn’t.

2. Watch Out for Idealization.

Instead of trying to deal with frustration and demoralization, we need to tackle this disease at the root cause — idealization.

To do this, Korzybski developed a “happiness” formula:



Happiness equals minimum expectations plus maximum motivation.

So, in order to be happier we need set our expectations at a realistic and minimal level and at the same time develop a maximum motivation.

When I say minimum expectations this doesn’t mean the lowest or least challenging expectations but rather the minimum realistic expectations based on one’s condition (talent, skill, circumstance, etc.) at a given time.

The point is to set our expectations at the minimum for something that can be accomplished or achieved. And then if they are exceeded, we can be even happier.

3. Avoid Abstract Jargon and Leadership Clichés

Sometimes, leaders are fond of using clichés and jargon to communicate messages to their team members. Phrases like “Give 110%” and “work smarter, not harder” while sounding “leadershippy” become overused, absurd, and meaningless.

“110%” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. “Working smarter” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Establishing clear communication practices can help leaders and team members to better understand one another and will accomplish more for the organization.

Simply throwing around cliché sound bites to project an aura of leadership not only obstructs the message, but it can hurt a leader’s authenticity and ultimately their respect in the eyes of their team.

Being careful about our language isn’t always the solution and it doesn’t guarantee that we will never experience frustration or demoralization, but it can provide a solution to clearer communication and more realistic expectations that will benefit the leader, the team, and the organization.

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** New episode of the Mind For Life Podcast featuring Dr. Lance Strate of Fordham University. Don’t miss it! Hear all his advice and subscribe now.**

Jeff Bogaczyk hosts the Mind For Life podcast and this article was originally posted on his personal blog at www.mindforlife.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbogaczyk

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