Stop Talking in Code – Start Improving Performance

Think about the last time you got an assignment that sounded something like this….  ”This project is a big opportunity, so I want you to be proactive and really own it.  I want you to think out of the box and come back with an innovative and strategic solution.”

The speaker might believe that he’s being very clear about what’s expected but, when I hear something like this, I have no idea what the listener is supposed to do.  And, if you could cut through this code, you could dramatically improve your own and others’ performance – reducing confusion about expected results and actions, and improving how people discuss and manage performance.

You might believe that this example is exaggerated, but my observations say that it’s far too common.  I’ve trained several thousand people on our Collaborative Leadership skills and most came into those workshops talking in code – words that lacked a specific, descriptive definition.  I think these people believed that the code informed and inspired (and maybe even impressed), but typically it only served to confuse.

Following is just a small sample of the code I hear – and my best guess at its most common meaning.
strategic – propose something that will impress senior managers or clients
own – control by pushing your ideas, limiting others’ choices, and claiming credit for any success
proactive – quickly stake out a role and goals and methods – so others can’t “own” the project
“out of the box” – often described in the negative, as in “don’t bring me the same old stuff, bring me something that’s out of the box!”
responsible or accountable – close cousins to own, though they seem to include the message that you will be the one punished for failure (though not necessarily the one rewarded for success).

Code creates several problems.  It confuses people as to what results or behavior are expected, and it may unintentionally encourage people to take action that is either ineffective or detrimental to project success.  This confusion can cause people to wait for further direction, which can delay performance and create risks to projects success.  Perhaps most troubling, code can set people up to be judged against criteria that were never clear – which makes code is the perfect tool to scapegoat a person.

If code creates such problems, then why do so many people use it?  I see three common reasons.
1. I’ve heard code my entire career so (even though I never knew what it meant) it must mean something because so many people use it (probably the most common cause)
2. It sounds impressive, so I’m going to use it to make sure that I look smart and capable.
3. I have no idea what I want you to do so, if I talk in code, the burden is on you and, if you fail, then the fault is yours too.

So, what can you do to reduce the problems caused by code?
FIRST, stop using code!  Be specific and descriptive when talking about performance – what results, how will they be measured, specific actions most likely to create the expected results, what are any boundaries not to cross, etc.

SECOND, unpack the code!  If people talk to you in code, ask them to explain exactly what they want.

  • if people say “strategic” ask about specific results they want to see and why, or which methods might be more useful and why
  • people say “own” ask about which specific behaviors they believe are critical for success, and also any behaviors you shouldn’t use
  • if people say “responsible” ask others to discuss specific roles – including who makes what decisions and how

THIRD, manage the resistance.  From my coaching experience, I can safely predict that, if you ask others to unpack their code that you will get resistance, even anger.  You can’t control how others might react, but I’ve always coached that clarity in expectations is incredibly valuable, even at the risk of upsetting others.

  • if someone says “what, you don’t know what it means to think strategically?”
  • you respond with “I’m interested in helping you achieve your most important goals, so I need to make sure I understand exactly what those goals are!”

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