From the May 2013 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Toxic Words: The Importance of the Language You Use in Your Firm

“Thoughtless words can wound like a sword.” —Proverbs 12:18

Words are powerful. They can be used to encourage, inspire and enlighten—or to judge and destroy.

In his book, “The 10 Commandments of Common Sense,” Hal Urban provides guidance for conducting our lives. His third commandment is, “Don’t use destructive language.” He calls these words “The Dirty Thirty.” Angry words, judgmental words, playing “poor me,” excessive fault-finding, complaining, whining, gossiping, false flattery, sarcasm and blowing things out of proportion are all on his list of destructive language.

Leaders who wish to create a world-class advisory business need to set the tone and call out those who use destructive talk to chip away at the firm culture. The leader’s language plays an important role in establishing respectful, responsible dialogue; it is the strongest currency for influencing the behavior of your associates.

Of course, the larger the firm, the harder it is to know what your people are saying. An effective leader must discourage associates from undermining the firm’s mission. I am not recommending thought control or censorship. Nor am I suggesting a dull and boring way of speaking. Rather, develop your skill in using words to create a positive impact, and cull phrases from your business that distract and disturb.

Our profession often relies on idioms and acronyms as an efficient way to relate ideas. While helpful, technical terms can camouflage or distort a message. Floyd Norris, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in March about a presentation by Bruno Iksil, the “London Whale.” On Jan. 26, 2012, as losses over his trades at JP Morgan were growing, Iksil proposed to “sell the forward spread and buy protection on the tightening move,” “use indices and add to existing position,” “go long risk on some belly tranches especially where defaults may realize” and “buy protection on HY and Xover in rallies and turn the position over to monetize volatility.”

I must confess that I have no clue what those statements mean. It would concern me even more if the Whale’s supervisors didn’t either, but it’s possible—based on the $6 billion in losses they incurred—that they didn’t want to look stupid by asking Iksil to explain what he was saying.

Jargon, catch phrases, clichés and throw-away lines are embedded in how we convey ideas—whether explaining a strategy, anticipating a problem or criticizing a colleague. These code words can be toxic, however, filtering through the culture of your firm like poison. They also have a way of preventing newcomers, outsiders and even clients from understanding what’s going on. Have you ever been befuddled by a phrase but were reluctant to ask what it meant because of how you thought you might be viewed by others?

Even more insidious than ambiguous jargon are clever phrases people use to deflect accountability. “That’s above my pay grade.” “It’s on my radar.” “I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that right now.” In other words, good luck expecting them to respond to your need. Their language lets you know that they are “passing the buck.”

Fast-growing advisory firms find their span of control stretched with each new employee. Unfortunately, I often hear advisory professionals use phrases loaded with resentment and criticism. Instead of leadership and courage, this talk reflects a lack of responsibility. Often snarky and pointless, such phrases do not contribute to the solution but rather aggravate the problem. In my top 10 most exasperating phrases: “I don’t want to throw him under the bus.”

This common refrain emerges when someone recognizes a problem and knows the perpetrator, but is unwilling to reveal him either for fear of disturbing a friendship or alienating a key person in the organization. As a result, management often doesn’t know who is “on the bus,” let alone who should be thrown under it. Problems around responsiveness, accuracy, efficiency and clarity are not addressed because the witnesses look the other way in hopes others will rise to the challenge.

This is when advisory firms start to get into trouble. Instead of having an early warning system for malfeasance, errors, service issues or bad processes, firm leaders stroll blithely along thinking their world is in order. If nobody’s talking about problems or taking responsibility for fixing them, how would the boss know about them until they have escalated to a crisis? There have been enough headlines about crises in financial services firms, including small advisory practices, to raise the alarm. Take note of the words or phrases your people are using. Does their way of speaking cause you concern about their sense of accountability to the business?

Have managers ask questions. Are they answered in a constructive, direct manner? Or do respondents triangulate: the act of whining to a third party, hoping the listener will have the courage to tell the bosses where and what the problem is.

Triangulators require a willing third party. The listener should encourage them to raise the issue, identify the problem, propose a solution and deal with it directly. Asking a triangulator if they’ve discussed the matter with the person they’re not happy with is the best way to handle this behavior. Suggest that if they don’t raise the issue with the other person, they’ll never get the issue resolved. The response should always be, “Well, if you haven’t told them, then I can’t help you.”

Those of us in financial services find it easy to measure success in terms of numbers and data. We know how to evaluate rates of return, margins, yields, allocations and indexes. These left-brain functions are critical to our success.

But active management of a business requires that we step away from the comfort of metrics to the ambiguous world of behaviors, emotions and language. Take an inventory of the phrases used within your firm and with clients. Make a game of it and ask each of your employees to keep a log of acronyms and idioms they use and hear throughout the day.

What do these phrases say about your culture, acceptable forms of criticism, the values of your people and the way in which they are taking ownership of your business challenges? Do they convey your values and create the right impression of your firm? Do they isolate or exclude certain people? Do they shelter malfeasance or hide poor workflow? Or are they constructive and positive ideas that will help you run your business more efficiently and serve your clients more effectively?

Lead your firm in speaking clearly and openly—and avoid the toxic effects of “The Dirty Thirty.”

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