Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 15;   April 11, 2007: Troublesome Terminology

Troublesome Terminology

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The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.

People in businesses around the world use common terminology for practices, concepts, and procedures that can be found in most organizations. You can find these terms in business dictionaries and at business glossary Web sites, and most serve us well. Some, though, help to defeat us. They carry baggage, and some evoke problematic images. Here are a few examples.

USS Lexington, an early aircraft carrier

The fourth USS Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed the "Gray Lady" or "Lady Lex", leaving San Diego, California, October 14, 1941. She was the second aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, and was among the first vessels to be part of a "task force." The term "task force" has a first-appearance date of 1941 in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, where it had a purely military meaning. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy, Photo #: 80-G-416362.

Cross-functional teams
The purpose of the "cross-functional team" is to blur boundaries, to have a team that functions beyond provincial departmental interests. Why, then, do we use a term that evokes the differences between the team's members, and emphasizes that the members are drawn from the different functional units of the organization?
Work/Life balance
Drawing a distinction between Work and Life adds to the tension between work and the rest of life, and then exaggerates it by using the balance metaphor. Work is part of Life. Whether I'm at work or not, I'm still alive. The problems with this term arise not from an imbalance between parts of Life, but from a failure of the employee, the organization, or both, to acknowledge all the needs of the whole Person.
Task force
A task force is a temporary team formed to investigate, to create, or to find a new perspective. Usually its work changes the way the organization sees or accomplishes its mission. It's a wonder how we can use the term "Force," and then complain later about the "resistance" we meet when we try to implement the results of the Task Force. Force, by its nature, spawns counterforce. In calling a group a "task force" we take the first step in creating the counterforce.
Golden handcuffs
When we In calling a group
a "task force" we take
the first step in creating
the counterforce
want key people to remain in place through difficult transitions, we need not only their physical presence, but their hearts and their passion. A promise of cash does persuade people to stay, but because it's an extrinsic motivator, it tends to dampen passion. Calling the mechanism "handcuffs" makes explicit our intention of depriving people of their freedom.
Compensation
In business, compensation refers to the array of benefits and payments employees receive. But almost everywhere else in life, to compensate is to provide offsets for harm done. Compensation evokes the idea that to work is to sacrifice, creating an obligation for employers to provide offsets. The reality for most knowledge workers today is very different. Most of us have made great sacrifices all through our lives for the opportunity to hold the jobs we hold. We usually don't view work as a sacrifice that employers must compensate for — until we hear the term "compensation."

This little essay probably won't bring an end to these terms. Only you can do that. If you want to, you can stop using them, and you can suggest that the people around you find other words, too. We'll all be a little bit better off. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: I  Next Issue

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