Cutting through

Cutting through

Cutting through

Preciousness about language is getting in the way of authentic connection and leadership.

Jonathan Yudelowitz 

There is a new Puritanism around. It has come through in recent years, particularly on social media. The hyper-sensitivity around language. The extreme consciousness around how we name things. I believe it poses a significant risk to businesses, organisations and leadership.

To lead requires one to be intentional and appropriate in what one says and does – and it requires one to be authentic. When we become overly concerned about every little thing we say – and every little thing we do – when we become overly concerned about being correct, we become self-conscious and self-censoring. We start to walk on eggshells. We lose what is essential to leadership: our presence and impact. A preciousness around language turns communication into something fake, something phoney – and when that happens, leadership loses the power of language altogether.

What I’m suggesting here may seem to contradictory to what I wrote recently, Which room are you in?( But it is the yin to the yang of that blog, in which I advocated that one be intentional about what conversation to have where.

In leadership, people need to be able to speak their minds – to say what they feel. Things are not always neat and tidy. If we no longer say what we mean – and no longer say what is necessary – where does that leave us? It is no way for leadership to behave.

Humour, banter and playfulness.

Every morning, I go for a run first thing, before work. Near where I live, the traffic police regularly set up an early roadblock to inspect people’s vehicles and licences. Which means I regularly get to see them – and they me. One of the female traffic officers takes the opportunity to call out to me.

“Hello, Daddy! Go, Daddy!”

Not exactly Puritanical. Where does the word Daddy come from, I think to myself? Talking of being overly sensitive: should I regard this comment as an ageist micro-aggression? No, because this traffic officer trusts that her impulsive call will cut through any impulse on my part to be defensive. That is the first thing. The second thing is that she has reached out and, in all of the craziness of the world, she has connected with me on a level that is priceless. “Here we are, each doing our thing. I am pleased to see you.”

The lady has cut through. Two human beings, as different as it is possible to be, are now connected by something. So much has been said. So much has been acknowledged. And so much has been achieved.

Amidst the chaos, the noise, the confusion of daily life, I believe we need to make more of the spontaneous moments that happen between human beings. We need to take the risk – if risk is necessary – to express our authentic selves. Human beings easily recognise the sincere and the well-intentioned.

It breaks through to establish an all-important trust and then things move forward on a healthier, easier footing.

Humour at work.  

Noticing what is emerging in a work situation, what is deemed real, is often best done with humour. When you’re working on a project with someone you don’t know, humour can acknowledge something that is not formal or real yet. It too is a priceless moment – the ability to share something. “I’ve just seen this irony. I’ve just picked up on an absurdity. Have you seen it too?”

That moment, when somebody can recognise the same joke as you. You’re not quite sure what has been acknowledged, but you have created a potential in the relationship. Things can move forward.

The same happens with flirtation. I’m not talking about innuendo, but about being playful. If I want to get to a boss, I am playful with his or her secretary. I acknowledge something about them and, in return, they acknowledge something about me. And that connection – it too moves things forward.

Humour can be overused or underused, which makes it liberating. The rules that try to proscribe what can and cannot be saidmake the humour all the more delicious. It is the sensibility and taste of those involved that gets you to smile at something together: to mark and celebrate sharing a moment that perhaps you were not supposed to, or that wasn’t meant to happen. It picks up contradiction, it lets off steam, it releases energy and marks the moment.

We need to bump into each other.

The world of work is wonderful. It forces people together in arbitrary ways and they must make it work. Part of that is being free to make a connection – or not. If I compliment someone, am I breaking a rule? Perhaps. But ‘seeing’ one another is important. Being conscious of other people’s reality is much more important than your rights and duties.

Working from home, working online, we have created a problem, particularly for young people. They haven’t had the chance to bump into each other – to get to know one another. They haven’t had the chance to see things like power at work. They haven’t seen how work works.

Use language in a way that is accurate and authentic.

Become overly sensitive about language – and it shuts things down. When you resort to formality and jargon, you won’t cut through. You won’t make the connection.

Become overly concerned about what you can and cannot do – and you start to live in someone else’s reality instead of your own. It turns you into something insipid.

Become self-censoring – and you censor the wrong things, the valuable things. Self-censoring consumes an enormous amount of energy that could be invested in the job at hand.

But when you feel connected and liberated, you can be creative. You can attend to the important stuff. People will understand your intentions. They will understand that you are being genuine.

In developing leadership, I need to focus on contradictions and dilemmas in a nuanced way. If I focus on conformity, I lose my nuance. I can no longer innovate.

The power of people showing their humanity.

A clerk may occupy a low rung on the ladder. But if they have discovered the gift of being themselves, they will also have discovered the ability to go about their day with spontaneous humour and banter. You can’t control this. It’s freedom.

Contrast it with concerns about micro-aggression, cancel culture and political correctness. Who is doing the judging? Who decides what is acceptable and what is not?

To get things done, help people discover their shared humanity. Risk yourself. Enjoy yourself. Put yourself out there. Enjoy other people. Enjoy the silliness of it all. It cuts through. And then the other stuff will happen.