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Is Boss a Four-letter Word

October 17, 2000
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This column might be much ado about nothing. I confess tohaving sensitive ears, and fancying myself a wordsmith, I sometimes obsess overwhat people say and how they say it. Perhaps I'm taking it too far.

Then again, maybe our word choice isn't such an innocent thing. What do youthink? Does our language sometimes reflect the personality of our workplaces?Could it even shape and reinforce our workplace culture? If you think so, thenit's time to open your ears and watch your language like never before.

I'm not talking about four-letter words. Those might be perfectly appropriate,especially if you're the thirteenth person who arrives hungry at a meeting wheresomeone has brought a dozen donuts. No, my concern here focuses on some of thecommon, G-rated words -- ones we use so often and automatically that we nolonger "hear" them.

Here's my list of leading culprits:

  • "my people" -- As in: "I took my people off site for a dayof planning."

    MY people? Moses can get away with this, and so can a few other leaders of biblicalproportion. But it's hard to imagine a true sense of team when one person,ostensibly the leader, thinks of relationships in the context of ownership.


  • "for me," "under me" -- As in: "Joan and Jackwork for me, but Ed works under Mary. I work for Ted, who has eight directreports, while Martha is over all of us."

    What is this, a human pyramid? Do these people work for Ringling Brothers? Ifwe're going to work FOR someone, let's serve the customer. Hierarchy reinforcesa class system, builds resentment, stifles innovation, and puts a low ceiling onexcellence.


  • "lower level," "upper level" -- As in: "Itreally would help if upper-level management did a better job communicating withthe lower-level employees."

    No, what would help is to see that everyone has equal importance, even thoughthe functions may differ dramatically -- and to act accordingly. This is HumanRelations 101. No one wants to be treated like a second-class citizen, either inword or deed.


  • "boss" -- As in: "My boss reminds me of that pointy-hairedguy in Dilbert."

    This word is so commonly used that it seldom gets scrutinized. Too bad. Turn itinto a verb and "boss" shows its nasty side.


  • "division" -- As in: "I don't know why our company hassuch poor communications and rampant internal competition. The six divisions arerun by wonderful people."

    So many organizations are broken into divisions, sections, zones, units. This isGinsu Knife management, in which people try to organize an extremely complexenterprise by slicing and dicing it into "manageable" pieces.Rational? Yes. Good for the whole? Rarely.


  • "committee" -- As in: "We'd get a lot done if ourorganization didn't have so many committees -- which reminds me, do you have acopy of the minutes in which we describe the 15-step process that subcommitteeshave to follow when making requests to the main committee?"

    Standing committees, steering committees, and subcommittees -- all these age-oldterms smack of bureaucracy. Many of these groups end up talking things over adnauseam, which is relatively harmless. But when they're "productive,"they make up new rules, cause delays, and prompt change agents to gounderground. If you have to label a group, pick a label that conveysexpectations. For instance, if you want a group to come together and get thingsdone, skip "committee" and go with "action team."

Just a bunch of words? Maybe, maybe not. Why don't you discuss it among yourcolleagues?

Come to think of it, instead of discussing it, try to engage in dialogue witheach other. If you look at the roots of the word discuss, you'll findthat it's all about presenting your perspective, letting others present theirs,and then having it out until someone's view carries the day. Webster tells usthat dialogue is more about creating a deeper understanding that isbigger and richer than any one opinion.

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