Teams often get tripped up by semantics as members interact. Here’s how to model clear, consistent messaging and foster a more respectful work environment
By Aviva Leebow Wolmer
Humans are great but imperfect creatures. To convey meaning, we must talk. While ants work consistently as part of their queen’s hivemind, we get tripped up by semantics as we deliver and receive messages. In the workplace, this can make the difference between a job well done and a total communication disaster.
If you’re an entrepreneur, a founder or a CEO, you might make the mistake of overlooking the role internal communications play in your business’ success. Good leaders must set the example and the standard for great communication.
They do this by paying attention to semantics at work and understanding how these nuances impact culture in ways both large and small.
James Humes, who’s written speeches for five presidents, knows a thing or two about driving home a message. As he so aptly put it, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” Like presidents, CEOs need to think about message delivery and encourage effective communications to every associate. Baking good semantics into a company’s culture will enable leaders to build strong and capable workplaces whose people perform better and are happier, too.
Here are a few actionable strategies to help you approach workplace semantics from a leadership standpoint.
1. Define what’s appropriate.
Establishing what is and is not appropriate is the baseline for workplace communication. To what extent should communication be formal, and when? Is casual communication encouraged and permitted, or do you require a business-only approach across the board? What is the proper way to address superiors, associates and customers?
The same goes for humor in the workplace. Jokes between associates can make the days bright. But employees should know what is off-limits, when it’s OK to joke and when an earnest approach absolutely is required.
Some of this should be addressed in an employee manual or handbook, though much of its practice is learned and passed along through culture. For this reason, leadership should set an impeccable early example, pay attention to developing patterns and intervene if and when any lines are crossed.
2. Establish terminology.
It’s also a leader’s job to decide what terminology will be used at work. For example, calling team members “associates” instead of “employees” is a semantic difference that actually manifests in the day-to-day. It emphasizes their value as team members instead of implying they are replaceable parts in a corporate machine — which is absolutely not the case.
Put some thought into terminology you will foster. At minimum, think through these questions:
Are associates completing projects, deliverables or something else entirely?
Does your company adhere to a mission, values or a vision?
Are you your team’s superior, boss or supervisor?
Do you attend meetings, sessions or huddles?
Though it may seem arbitrary at first, terms with slight differences carry separate meanings. In aggregate, these speak volumes about your company’s culture and business model.
3. Eliminate weak language.
Weak language is the downfall of so many conversations, and most of us don’t even realize when we’re using it! It can take some self-training to develop awareness and alter our own speaking habits. It’s absolutely essential for leaders to effectively convey important points.
The use of “but” and “and” provides one case study. “But” is weak because it can be interpreted to invalidate others’ claims or ideas. Using “and” builds on others’ contributions instead of overriding them. Ultimately, this is a more positive and motivational approach. It explores territory without plowing down its trees, so to speak.
Like most shortcomings, weak language doubles as an opportunity for improvement. If you discover weaknesses in your vocabulary, you’ve just unlocked the next step to becoming a stronger, clearer communicator.
4. Realize clarity is king.
Ambiguous language can be another huge barrier in the workplace. It’s virtually impossible to set clear expectations when you use muddy language. Precise wording is the only way to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Some words can be interpreted multiple ways by different people. A “short” meeting, for example, could be any amount of time. Give a specific time frame instead, so team members can plan appropriately. The same goes for words such as “large,” “urgent” and “ASAP.” Remember, what’s urgent for you might not be urgent for someone else.
Clear communication also avoids over-complication. It boils down messages to raw facts, and the best leaders check in from time to time to make sure everything is understood. If emotional content needs to be communicated, do it it in person. Tone easily can be misinterpreted. Similarly, serious matters must be handled with the gravity they deserve. In these scenarios, email just won’t do the job.
5. Be intentional with digital communications.
As workplaces become more digitalized, associates increasingly are relying on email and using tools such as Slack and Skype. Leaders should set expectations here, too: What should and should not be communicated digitally? What is the proper way to converse online?
Important or sensitive matters are best dealt with in person or at least on a phone call. Unfortunately “important” and “sensitive” don’t mean the same thing to everyone. Slap a definition on these words so team members understand when email use is appropriate.
In general, it’s a good idea to send facts through email to create a written record of information and details that associates are unlikely to retain in person. Online messaging is great for casual, real-time work conversations to quickly get answers and move projects forward. When in doubt, use both methods: After all, it’s always better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
6. Use body language.
Semantics go further than the written and spoken word. The way we behave, look and act on a daily basis sends messages we might not realize or intend.
Leadership can establish the bar by dressing and acting professionally. Instead of folding your arms, talk with your hands. Practice good posture, make eye contact, and don’t be afraid to take up space. Pay attention to the pitch of your voice, and avoid uptalk and vocal fry if you can. Perfect your handshake. Smile.
Together, these body-language cues will help solidify an air of authority and reinforce how gestures can add to or impede our meaning. Show team members how to behave around customers and train them so they’re prepared for those interactions. Encourage associates to dress to impress when the situation calls for it, and you’ll see the culture of confidence spread.