Excerpted from winning with accountability: the secret language of high-performing organizations (cornerstone leadership institute, 2008)

Excerpted from Winning with Accountability: The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations (Cornerstone Leadership Institute, 2008).

Nine-tenths of life’s serious controversies come from misunderstanding. – Louis Brandeis

Traditionally, language is perceived to be the structure of how messages are sent and received. However, language actually achieves more by stimulating opinions and creating emotional responses.

For example, there’s a new restaurant in town … and the people you work with are raving about the food. Even before you set foot in that restaurant or have lifted that first forkful of food, you now have an opinion. You have positive emotions about that restaurant, simply because you’ve heard language like “great food,” “ambience” and “the best I’ve ever had.”

We use language all of the time, either as a transmitter of our thoughts and information or as a receiver of others’ thoughts and information. Since you use language anyway, why not use it in an intentional way to get or achieve what you want in creating a high-accountability culture, the appropriate language will elevate performance and improve your communication efficiency. Your dialogue will be fast, powerful and complete.

The Four Stages of Language Development
Accountability language is real. It is visible and palpable, and there is a process to learning and using it to help you achieve positive results.

Learning the Language of Accountability is similar to how human beings learn their native language. Toddlers, for example, hear their parents using language. At some point in their development, toddlers may even mimic the sounds their parents are using, even though they don’t know the words or understand the meaning.

Eventually, these little ones begin to connect meanings to words, learn to string them together into sentences and then begin using language to convey their needs or get what they want. That’s one way we learned our native language.

Now, suppose your native language is English and you’re sitting in an airport. The couple next to you is speaking Portuguese, a language you’ve never heard before.

Several weeks later, you’re watching a Portuguese movie with English subtitles and you immediately recognize this as the language the couple had been speaking at the airport.

Because you’re a lifelong learner and you are interested in foreign languages, you decide to sign up for a Portuguese course at the local college. By the end of the semester, you have a basic understanding of close to 100 vocabulary words. As you continue to read, study and listen to Portuguese, before long, not only can you understand spoken Portuguese, but you are also beginning to speak it yourself.

The learning process of developing organizational accountability language is very similar to learning a new language. The same four phases of language learning – hearing, recognizing, understanding and speaking – apply.

As you apply the Language of Accountability, model it for your team and others you work with. Eventually, it will be a natural process. Your accountability culture begins … not with the organization changing as a whole but, instead, with the language that you as an individual choose to use. It is through individual change that organizational change occurs and the change begins with you!

The Glossary of Failure
To understand the Language of Accountability, we’ll first look at the type of language that leads to miscommunications. Language used to forecast relationship or project failure is called the “Glossary of Failure.” It’s ambiguous, lacks specificity and will assuredly lead to disappointment, failure and bad feelings. Ambiguity and generalizations lead to disappointment.

Here’s a good example. If you ask three people what “ASAP” means to them, you’ll probably get three different answers as to the specific timeframe in which “ASAP” is carried out.

Now, let’s say I’m promising an external customer a new copier and I’m relying on you to complete the service contract. You tell me you’ll get it to the customer ASAP – an ambiguous answer. How can I make a real delivery commitment to that customer?

Or, what about the ambiguous “I’ll get right on it”? Do you mean you’ll do the task immediately … or as soon as you finish reading your e-mails … or after you’ve had lunch? When is “right on it”?

Don’t confuse the Glossary of Failure with lack of intention. Sometimes, “I’ll get right on it,” means that they have great intention and, in fact, really intend to complete the project. You don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm but you do wish to clarify the commitment.

Intentions can’t be measured. The employee who promised to “get right on it” may have had no intention of getting to your project this afternoon, the next day or even this week. That’s not lack of accountability. That’s grounds for termination due to lack of interest.

Suppose someone says they are going to have a report “by the end of the day.” So, what’s “the end of the day” for you? Is it 5 p.m.? Is it your bedtime? Or, does the end of the day come when the clock strikes midnight? Who knows and how can the person be held accountable for an ambiguous answer?

If you’re working with branch offices around the country or around the globe, the “end of the day” occurs at many different times. Let’s say you’re working on the East Coast and someone on the West Coast promises a completed task by the end of the day. Is that Eastern Standard Time or Pacific Time? Is it at 5 p.m. on your coast or 5 p.m. on their coast?

Even things that seem obvious can be a part of the Glossary of Failure. What about a promise to complete a project by the end of the year? If your corporation works on a fiscal year, that could be August or September or October. If it works on a calendar year, it’s December – but is it the first of December or the last day of December?

As you are probably observing, these types of ambiguities are all part of the Glossary of Failure … and every one of these vague phrases increases the chances of relationship or project failure. Here are some of the biggest offenders from the Glossary of Failure:

  • Soon
  • ASAP
  • Right away
  • I’ll get right on it!
  • The end of the day/week/month/year
  • Later
  • Try
  • Should
  • Best
  • Might
  • By the “next time” we meet
  • We

So what can you do to neutralize this ambiguity? Begin using the language of specificity.

High-Accountability Language
Instead of saying, “I’ll have this report on your desk ASAP,” you say, “I’ll have that report on your desk by 1 p.m. this afternoon.” Rather than saying, “We’ll have the project completed by the end of the day,” tell your counterpart, “I’ll have it wrapped up by Tuesday, June 13th at 10 a.m., your time.”

Like the three most important rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” the three most important rules in creating an accountability culture are “specificity, specificity, specificity.” Practice making commitments, using the Language of Accountability by saying, “I will do it on ‘X’ date at ‘X’ time.”

The Language of Specificity includes:

  • What date and time should I follow up with you to make sure the loop is closed?
  • Who owns it?
  • I own it!
  • Will (e.g., “I will’ in lieu of “try,” “should,” or “might.”)
  • Here’s what it will look like when it is completed.

Using the Language of Specificity will increase accountability and strengthen the accountability culture within your organization.

As you practice avoiding the Glossary of Failure and increase your mastery of the Language of Specificity, you’ll see your performance increase. High-performing leaders are skilled at listening for ambiguity in language and replacing it with specificity.

Remember the four steps of acquiring new language – hearing, recognizing, understanding and speaking? You will experience this same sequence as you become highly skilled at listening for specificity.

You’ll also move through these same four phases as you begin using the Language of Specificity when asking for – and making – commitments and building a Culture of Accountability within your organization.

To find out how well you and your organization are using the Language of Accountability, take the free Accountability Assessment at http://www.dynamicresults.net. 

Excerpted from Henry Evans’ book, Winning with Accountability: The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations (Cornerstone Leadership Institute, 2008).

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Please contact Dynamic Results for permission to reprint this article at moreinfo @ dynamicresults.net. Unless specifically requested and agreed upon, reprints may not be altered in any way and must include the accompanying byline, biography, and contact information.

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