Why “Hollow” Words Don’t Cut It in Business Systems

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As a business owner, your success largely depends on the quality of your team’s work. And to get your team to produce high-quality output, you need to be able to communicate your expectations clearly. One way to do this is by documenting your business systems and processes. However, these systems are only effective if they use clear and specific language that creates context for the team member.

Unfortunately, many business owners use what I call “hollow” words in their systems and processes. These are words that don’t have any meaning on their own and only make sense when you provide context. Using hollow words can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, ultimately resulting in poor performance and low morale.

This is even more critical in the application of systems and processes within a business. Remember that the system is, in effect, you telling your team what to do whilst you are not there. The only thing they have to work from is the system. As you are not there, they don’t have the opportunity to clarify the exact parameters of success. This is even more difficult when you have used hollow words, such as those listed below.

The examples of hollow words below show how they can be misinterpreted in a business context:

Appropriate – The employee interpreted the request for “appropriate” dress for a business meeting to mean casual attire, while the boss expected professional attire.

Accordingly – The process instructs the user to lay out the tools for a dental procedure “accordingly,” but failed to provide clear instructions on what that meant, resulting in confusion and delay during a dental procedure.

Sufficient – The process step told the technician to tighten the nut “sufficiently.” Not knowing exactly what that meant, the end result was a snapped bolt caused by over-tightening the nut. Without clear guidance, there’s every chance that this problem will occur again and again. Think how easy it would have been for the step to say “Tighten the nuts to 35Nm.” Think how many disgruntled customers could be avoided with a simple, clear parameter.

Adequate – The process step says to thoroughly mix an adequate amount of anti-mould solution into the paint. The young painter adds 500ml to the 10l can – he has no idea whether this is adequate or not. End result? The house owner is not happy, tells all his friends, and they have to do the job again.

A few other “hollow” words commonly used are: relevant, appropriate, acceptable, suitable, applicable, correct, properly, sufficient, accordingly, pertinent, commensurate, accurate, competent, capable, … the list goes on.

Rather than list all the many hollow words that could be used, reflect for a moment on the language you and others use in giving instructions in your business. See if you can identify examples of hollow words being used. Now consider how easy it would have been to provide the actual criteria that would mean success every time the step is implemented.

Using hollow words in your business systems documents takes the problem to a whole different level. Systems, whether they are in writing, on video or in a flowchart, rely on a one-way message. There is no opportunity for your team members to ask questions to clarify the meaning of the words they read or hear. This lack of communication often leads to misunderstandings and errors.

So, what should you do instead? Use clear and specific language in your systems and processes, avoiding “hollow” words.

Download our 11 Steps to Better Systems or get in touch, obligation free, and learn more about how Brain in a Box can help you and your team build better systems.

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