Leon’s “welcome” posting makes me feel embarassed and gives me a frightening standard to live up to. Anyhow, thanks for the kind words…and here I go again.

Buzzwords block our ability to think and communicate clearly, so people are left confused and frustrated. The buzzword “motivation” is a prime example. Though it sounds precise, it has that typical characteristic of all buzzwords: a vague cluster of meanings lumped within a single word. My dictionary defines is as “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.” You can’t get much vaguer than that.

Most new managers — and many experienced ones too — feel concerned how best to “motivate’ their staff. It ought to be simple to get help. Nearly every consultant and business coach claims some expertise in the topic. Yet somehow people stay uncertain. I don’t think it’s just the difficulty of the subject — though any skill related to dealing with other people is never straightforward. I believe the problem is inherent in the obscurity of the buzzword “motivation” itself.

Suppose you need to motivate someone. What will you have to do? What skills will you need? Broadly — and vaguely — the answer seems simple: you need to affect “the desire or willingness of someone to do something.” You want that person to carry out some action at your request, and do it willingly and with full attention. But once you begin to ask how to achieve this, the obscurity of the term “motivate” blocks your progress.

Suppose you replace the buzzword “motivate” with a specific term? The task becomes clear at once:

  • How do I influence…?
  • How do I persuade…?
  • How do I convince…?
  • How do I encourage…?
  • How do I ask…?
  • How do I explain…?

The list could go on and on, each word signaling both the action you’re considering and the skill you’ll need. The question: “How do I motivate…?” covers them all.

Buzzwords seem useful because they allow people to say something that sounds sensible, even when the speaker isn’t at all clear what he or she means. They sound fashionable and up-to-date, even trendy. And they cover such a range of possibilities they free us from the need to sort out our ideas before we start.

That’s why politicians and advertisers are so fond of buzzwords. They allow for all shades of meaning — and none at all — in a single word or phrase. If any of the possible meanings leads to criticism, or sounds too close to a commitment or obligation, it’s easy to say your words were “taken out of context” and you never meant that at all.

Using words precisely isn’t pedantry. We think in words, so having a vague word in your mind ensures any thoughts created from it are obscure and imprecise. When you communicate using buzzwords, it’s an invitation to misunderstanding.

That’s why lazy subordinates can claim, “my boss doesn’t motivate me” with about the same degree of truthfulness as the philandering husband who excuses his womanizing because, “my wife doesn’t understand me.”

Excuses need vague terms. Making things happens successfully depends on precision and clarity.

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within.

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