The language of accountability

Jerome Parisse-Brassens

Language is a powerful lever that can be used to transform culture. One could argue that I have built this belief as a trained linguist, but the truth is that language is powerful. It is both a system that we use to communicate with each other to carry meaning, and a symbol that reveals the way we think. Change the symbol and people will perceive different messages.

If you continuously use words such as mistakes, failures, and get it right, your teams might understand that it is not ok to make a mistake and as a consequence may be fearful of taking the risks the business needs to become truly innovative. If, on the other hand, you speak of lessons learned, measured risks, learnings and improvements, your teams will know that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them.

In the same way, language can be used to increase accountability. At Walking the Talk, when we tackle a pattern of lack of accountability in the organisation, we start by introducing the word “promise” at the heart of the contract that is made (implicitly or not) between the asker of a request and the receiver of the request. It does not have to be a hierarchical request, it could be between peers and colleagues.

The word “promise” is usually used in a non-professional context and carries emotional weight. We don’t make promises lightly. Speaking of “promises” within the work environment introduces an element of duty, loyalty and reflection that makes the whole difference in the accountability equation. The asker and the receiver will be discussing the request at a completely different level if they have a promise in mind. They won’t leave the table before having ensured that everything is clear for both parties: timeframes, deadlines, resources, outputs and outcomes. By simply starting to discuss “promises” at work, accountability increases. And deadlines are missed less often.

I can think of many other words that can change mindsets and practices. Can you?


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