Strategic semantics: word choice essentials in establishing a high-performance culture.

Author:Newport, Stephanie


Bullying is not a new phenomenon and it has spawned numerous studies on schoolyard bullies both on the playground and in cyberspace (Swartz, 2005). An extreme case in 1992, a student in Indiana was bullied by classmates over a boy; she was tortured and burned alive (Lohr, 2008). Suicide is another, unfortunately common, response to bullying. A young Canadian soldier committed suicide in 2011, saying in his suicide note that he couldn't take the pain any longer ( A similar case was that of an 18-year-old student who likewise committed suicide when the bullying became intolerable and authorities did nothing to hold the bullies accountable (, 2003).

To understand the origin of bullies, there are several definitions that must be established and accepted:

  1. Responsibility is the willingness to be held accountable.

  2. Accountability is the obligation to justify the use of organizational resources.

  3. Authority is the right to control the use of organizational resources.

These definitions are the foundation of the argument presented herein. Responsibility is a word that is overused, and therefore easily dismissed. (McCabe, 1989). It is found on nearly every diploma, certificate, and award within the phrase "rights and responsibilities." However, hundreds of thousands of examples exist that show people shirking their responsibilities while exercising their rights. Might such documents hold more weight if they were to say "rights and obligations?" Similarly, it is a daily occurrence to hear, "It's your responsibility to..." or, "I'm giving you the responsibility to...." Anyone who has worked with an irresponsible person knows the futility of the latter statement.

Since irresponsible people do not want to be held accountable and cannot be given responsibility they don't possess, it would be folly to delegate authority to them. An irresponsible person who is given authority is an organizationally-created bully. The repercussions are potentially devastating to an organization's long-term viability. Lawsuits are the most obvious consequence of irresponsible behavior, be they for negligence, gross negligence, fraud, or contributing to someone's death. That is only a partial list of grievances that follow irresponsibility.

The authors' insistence on precision in word usage is grounded in semantics. Semantics is the study of meanings imparted by interrelationships of words, phrases, and sentences. "Words are all we have, really," according to the late comedian George Carlin. (Brown, 2008, p. 1). Books, articles, and commentaries about the importance of words are abundant. Words and their meanings are shaped by people but individuals are also shaped by words.

Two concepts point to establishing clear definitions of words used between and among employees. The first of these is semantics, a doctrine aimed at recognizing the essential benefit of using words and symbols appropriate to a desired outcome (Webster, 2009). Finally, rhetoric encompasses various writing and/or speaking skills essential to communicating and persuading an audience as to expected behaviors (Webster, 2009).


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