When we lived in Miami, several times my wife, Kaye, was asked in Spanish, “Como se llama?” which means, “What is your name?” Since she knows a little Spanish, she responded appropriately, “Kaye.” If you know Spanish at all, you know that “Kaye” sounds like “Que,” and that “Que” means “What?”
So the person would ask the question again, typically a little louder, “Como se llama?” And Kaye would respond the same, a little louder. Usually after a few times of asking, the person gave up frustrated. After all, the conversation felt like this from their perspective:
“What is your name?”
“What is your name?”
Multiple definitions for the same sounding word led to confusion and frustration. The same is true in an organization. If important language is not defined over and over again, people construct multiple interpretations of the essential words in an organization. Common terms, without definition, can actually create more confusion than alignment.
Here is how it happens in many settings: A leader or leadership team starts to use a word or phrase, and that word or phrase gains traction in the organization. Others realize that the word is important in the culture, and they start using it to show they are on board or to show how something they are doing fits into the bigger picture. Over time, the word or phrase can lose its original intent and can mean different things to different people. The word is constantly thrown around without any definition, and this gives the false impression of alignment when in fact multiple directions exist.
In a ministry context, this can happen with words like “discipleship,” “gospel,” or “mission.” In any leadership context, this can happen with language used to describe mission or values.
Without language definition, multiple directions can be perpetuated in the midst of common language. Unless there is constant definition of what the important culture-shaping words mean, there will not be alignment. In fact, if the important words are allowed to mean a plethora of things, if leaders don’t constantly define the words that are used, the multiple definitions will only create confusion and a plethora of directions.
Because of this, leaders are wise to periodically audit the important terms and language in the organization they serve:
1. Listen for the common language.
Over a period of a few weeks, listen for the key organizational terms, phrases, and words that are used. Jot these down.
2. Discuss and define with your team.
After you have compiled a list of the common language, ask your team to define what these phrases mean. If your team is not on the same page as to the definition, the rest of the organization surely is not.
3. Communicate with definition.
If you find words that are important in your culture being used in a way that does not match the original intent, some definition in your communication is necessary. Leaders are wise to constantly define and remind people of the meaning behind the important terms and phrases an organization utilizes.
While common language can be uniting for a culture, it is only truly uniting if everyone is on the same page about the definitions underneath the common language.