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The Semantics of Leadership

Creating teams from disparate groups across organizations and across the world requires a semantic savvy CEO

The key to ensuring clear and concise intergroup communication between members within and across grip[s is a focus on common semantics. Taking the time to focus on semantics within and across the team saves time, effort and confusion, thus saving cost.

While in Japan, I was discussing the cost of a printer with my colleague.  I said it was “expensive”. He said it was “handsome”, as in “The manufacturer charged a handsome price”.  It was easy in this conversation to continue without discussing the differences – I could extrapolate the context of it’s use and during the rest of the conversation I could mentally translate it to my understanding.  However, I explained the typical American English (as opposed to British English) use of handsome to my colleague – I called him handsome!


    1. “(of a man) good looking, (of a woman) striking and imposing” 
    2.  “(of an amount) substantial”

Oxford University Press

English changes over time and is used differently depending on the location; Singalese, the form of English used in Singapore, is different from British English, which is different from American English. In definitions and usage idioms come and go, just as teams break up and form into others. Sometimes, the usage differences are funny; in France a British gentleman once told me he was going outside on a break to smoke a fag.

The price of assuming

When a discussion centers on business terms and there is a possibility of an unknown confusion. The same word used by both parties, with differing context and the result is not funny. The words may be the same, but the meaning is not. The conversation participants think they had understanding and agreement when, in fact, they did not.  This misunderstanding is expensive and the cost can be very high and escalate as time goes on. Folks carry on with their work and when the differences are caught much effort has been expended

When I lived in Paris, I managed a Pan-European software application development project. The team was comprised of a central group of developer writing and testing common code. Each country had their own testers to verify the common code within their unique environments. Everyone agreed delivery of code to testers would occur every six weeks and plans were created around delivery dates.  It was not until the first delivery date arrived that we realized the developers’ definition of delivery was the point in which the code was sent to testers on the common development team and the other countries were expecting a delivery of tested code from the common development testers. We all agreed on the dates of delivery, but never spent the few minutes to discuss exactly what was meant, a subtle difference caused havoc with the project schedule.  Development dates slipped because the common code was not tested by the countries, the country testers were reassigned and it was difficult to get them reassigned back to the project when they were really needed.

Using semantics to create the team, regardless of member affiliation

Having led teams of all sizes and complexities around the world, I have learned that the very first thing to have the team focus on is semantics.


    1. “the branch of linguistics and logic concerning meaning”
    2. “the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence or text”

Oxford University Press

Many times I will stop the flow of conversation and ask – “what do you mean by that, exactly”? I will sometimes ask the team to write it down. Members from differing geographical areas are more apt to see the intrinsic value in taking the time to stop each other and question use of terms. Within a country, like the US, teams made up of different companies may see the need, but different organizations within a company do not perceive any value. It frustrates the team because it breaks up the flow of conversation, takes time and at first the value is little understood. The teams which do not see any value with will push back – how can they get definitions wrong when they talk every day? How can they be wrong when everyone is certified in the same area?

When I take leadership of any project, anywhere in the world, I first have the team explain their definition of words. When there are differing uses in similar context, I have the team discuss why and how they choose a specific semantic of a term for the team.  The team decides together how they will use the term.

When I join a team which already exists I make a conscious decision to use my newness as a reason to question everything, I quiz to make sure the team has discussed and refined definitions. 

When a team is newly formed, creation of common definitions and a laser focus on agreement of terms is a part of the overall agreements necessary to define the team’s reason for being.

In both cases, the team learns the norms of everyone on the team. It is not a special piece of work – it is folded into day-to-day activities. I don’t even call out, nor discuss, work needed for creation of common semantics, it is not a line item nor is there a specific work product. By having a leader focus and question semantics it is quickly understood that this is a focus of my leadership and the team starts questioning each other ensure everything is precise. Morale of the team also rises because they have been part of decision making process, have learned how to work together, making that decision and can now focus on their primary mission and goals without communication missteps.

A common language as team unifier

The team is solidified by having it define and agree on usage of terms during the normal course of a common work day. It forces communication, debates and buy-in. You can save much confusion, time and funds by focusing the team on creating a common language.  Invite your executives, project managers and team members to quiz each other on terminology and see morale go up as confusion goes down. The goal is to “insure that when members of a team speak (write, e-mail, etc.) to each other or to others, that they state things as simply and clearly as possible.  That means avoiding obscure words and also avoiding pernicious ambiguity (i.e. ambiguity where both of the interpretations could conceivably be meant, so the reader/hearer really can’t tell which was meant)”

Susan Piro Susan@dynamicleadership.biz  is president of Dramatic Leadership, a Connecticut based consulting firm specializing in  innovation and  productivity improvement through stronger cross-organizational teamwork.

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