Four Words That Kill Morale

We’ve all been there.  You’re at the annual meeting; the leaders rattle off the usual buzzwords.  Eyes glaze.  The question is why?  No one shows up to a meeting wanting to be bored.  Leaders certainly don’t want their teams to disengage.

But words matter.  When leaders overuse jargon with no weight behind it, people disconnect.  Here are four well-intended yet overused words that garner more eye rolls than enthusiasm.

1. Accountability

When was the last time someone used the word accountability in reference to themselves? Here’s how it usually plays out, the leader declares, “We’re going to start to hold people accountable around here.” Heavy sighs ensue because what’s left unspoken from the leader is, “That doesn’t include me.”  No one wants to work for an organization where people aren’t held accountable.  Yet accountability is only effective when it’s in the service of shared goals.  Imagine your spouse starting off a conversation saying, “We’re going to be making some changes, there’s going to be more accountability in this marriage.”  Do you feel more or less excited about your partnership?  Now imagine your spouse saying, “I’d like to help get in better shape financially (or have more fun, or improve our health, etc.)  Accountability is created by agreement to a concrete plan.

2. ROI

Translated, my bonus. Yes, ROI it matters, but it’s rarely within the control of most performers. It’s always obvious to a team when the leader is getting bonused on something they’re not.  Leaders who tout ROI when their team has no skin in the game risk alienating people.  Bonus’s aside, many leaders’ roles not responsible for the P&L toss about the phrase ROI so often it means nothing, overuse the word ROI.  It’s jargon people sprinkle into conversations to prove they’re making good decisions.  It’s better to use common language and be specific about what you’re doing and why.

3. Competencies

A single word that makes people feel both bored and inadequate.  For starters, no one is inspired by competencies.  Seeing your job distilled down into 37 microskills is draining to say the least.  Competencies also imply the lack thereof.  If someone is discussing competencies, and you’re not in training, the subtle message is you are incompetent.  Competencies are a great HR tool; people need concrete forms of evaluation.  But continually bringing up competencies as part of the leadership narrative tells your team, you’re mired in the muck.  Talking about what you want do and where you want to be great at is more compelling.

4. Stakeholders
“It’s important we get all the stakeholders involved.” Who exactly would that be? You can make the case in most organizations that everyone is a stakeholder. A stakeholder is an overused generic term with no staying power.  Nobody ever stayed late because they were so inspired by their stakeholders.  If you mean customers, say customers, if you mean coworkers, say coworkers.  Generic words create generic behavior.

None of these four words are bad.  They’re simply so overused they’ve lost their power.  If your main leadership message is hold people accountable, deliver ROI, improve competencies and engage stakeholders, you’ll wind up with a perfectly uninspiring organization.

You don’t need jargon to make your point.  Tell people where you want to go and how you want to get there.  Use your real words, they’re almost always better.