N, as in… Negative phrasing
By Frédéric SOS - October 22, 2019

"This year, we'll get out of the red!"

5 years after its launch, this startup, originally an intrapreneurial initiative within an industrial group in the electronics field whose activity was flourishing in spectacular fashion, had yet to turn its first real profits. Despite confidence in the company's potential for success, group senior management was starting to show signs of impatience and urged the CEO to demonstrate that the startup's economic model was indeed viable. This topic, explicitly addressed during a management team meeting, resulted in the decision to hold a convention gathering this venture's workforce (several tens of employees) in order to "freely raise the question of our economic performance, in addition to limiting our sources of losses".
In keeping with this event's stated objective, the CEO opened the convention with a resounding call: "this year we'll get ourselves out of the red!". The ExCom members asked to speak went on to provide a very well documented analysis of the activities that were still unprofitable, along with a detail of expense items deemed out of control. Afterwards, attendees split up into workshops focusing on the resources to be implemented to eliminate these losses: the entire company was thus being mobilized around finding a solution to the problem (feel free to consult my post in this series entitled "P, as in… Problems").
What happens when a child is told "Be careful not to fall!" or "Don't forget to buy the bread!"?
Negative phrasing has several consequences. First of all, promoting a depiction of what's to be avoided paradoxically shifts the focus onto that very thing; next, as opposed to one's intention, the instruction given loses its emphasis and fails to move the group toward collective reflection or action.
By rallying the teams around such a directive, the CEO of our startup, despite being strongly committed to its success, was actually preparing them to cope with another year of racking up deficits. The impetus from this convention served to make adjustments to the current situation, and in some instances quite deftly. One such campaign was even called: "how to convince Group senior managers to agree to investing long term in the venture"(!). Let it be known that this firm became profitable three financial years down the road.
This anecdote symbolizes a type of approach that heavily influences the leadership practices of our organizations.
What is to be made of phrasing of the sort: "By telling you this, I certainly wouldn't want you to wind up thinking that...", "it's not my intention to... but...", "I'm still not exactly sure of what it is I want, but I already know what I don't want", "our objective is to stop...", or how about the killer phrase "the worst thing would be to find ourselves in this situation..."?
I'd like to cite one practice in particular here, even though it tends to garner widespread praise and, as such, lies at the core of so-called "continuous improvement" (reference to industrial culture) and "transformation" strategies, namely: feedback.
I can't help myself from thinking (what about that negative phrasing, now that I'm paying attention?) of this young brilliant engineering grad assigned to host the feedback process (also sometimes called experience feedback) within a subsidiary of a large construction group. To enhance presentations, he used as a logo the Tyrannosaurus Rex (or T-Rex to remind French audiences of the commonly used acronym (REX) for feedback ("REtour d'eXpérience")), this large dinosaur and one of the most ferocious carnivores of all time, a super-predator at the very top of the food chain. His pictogram contained the epitaph "the king of the tyrant lizards", in acknowledgment of the etymology of this animal's name, but also conveying a very unique image of how the feedback protocol being introduced would impact the company.
I'm also reminded of the initiative taken by the Human Resources Director of an industrial group some 15 years ago just after a very costly industrial accident. He had decided to convene all 180 employees actively involved in this failure, for the constructive (according to him and I found him to be sincere) purpose of carrying out a feedback session on this event. 20 working groups were formed, with each one being asked to produce upon completion of a half-day session a 6-page flipchart presentation laying out the ingredients, causes and dynamics leading to this "disaster". Beyond the "guilt-inflicting" aspect of the exercise (with 180 "guilty parties" being accused), our HR Director did receive the 120 pages requested on a corner of his desk. He had obtained a collection of bad practices, malfunctions, misunderstandings, post hoc rationalizations, and even some acts of contrition… in other words a completely useless output.
He was looking for a relevant application of these materials and contracted my services in this aim. My suggestion of simply discarding the entire collection sounded overwhelming at first. Then a few discussions later, he ultimately decided to select a dozen employees from the 180 initially solicited, for their energy, intelligence and ease of expression, to explain the fundamentals of what the company had done right during that same period (the industrial accident had overshadowed all else). The group also submitted a 6-page flipchart presentation explaining, from their standpoint, the prerequisites, practices and dynamics inherent in successful projects. With this grid serving as a guide, as a road map for success, then an insightful interpretation of the accident could become crystal clear.
Since that time, I've systematically suggested to my contacts to only roll out feedback techniques when elucidating the ingredients of success, thus laying out winning strategies for their teams. Another post will soon be devoted to such strategies.
So, by the way, how will you be formulating next year's core objectives for your closest team members?