Help me understand “Whatever.” Imprecision threatens success.

I had an “oh, boy” moment this morning. That’s kind of like an “ah, ha” but not in a good way. It’s more like an “uh, oh” moment. It happened when I started thinking about how imprecise our language has become and how a lack of clear, meaningful communication can lead us nowhere good.

I was working on a major performance management proposal and I was thinking about how to update long-standing traditions and beliefs regarding how performance is evaluated and feedback is offered. It’s never been a great system partly because expectations are often fuzzy and mostly because people generally don’t like conflict. Passing judgment on another person’s performance often triggers messy emotions around superiority and inferiority and who’s better than whom.

For those of us who have been around a while, we learned how to compartmentalize as necessary to get through a performance review meeting. We were less interested in the feedback and more interested in the raise.

I don’t suppose that’s changed much, although the expectations attached to the whole performance evaluation process have changed a lot. Now it’s all about growth and development and the responsibility that leaders have to model and encourage the right behavior. That’s a terrific evolution.

Young people want opportunity and they need guidance. But I think about how our grading systems in schools have dissolved, how difficult standards of performance have been relaxed so kids can feel proud of any and all accomplishment whether it meets a target or not, and how “crucial conversations” often end with the word “whatever.”

What does “whatever” mean? Usually it signals the end of a conversation. But depending on the circumstances, it could mean, “I think you are too stupid to understand what I’m saying.” “I don’t know what I mean.” “I can’t find the right words to express what I want to say.” “If I say what I really feel, our relationship will be sorely damaged.” “I’m really angry.” “I’m bored with this discussion.” And heaven knows what else.

Saying whatever as a catch-all closure phrase is bad enough, but when we accept it as some sort of conclusion, we all lose the opportunity to understand each other. I’ve noticed that when things get difficult or scary, a lot of people would rather get busy with other things than deal with the issue. That’s very bad.

Going back to the performance management situation, businesses are daily getting much more precise thanks to science, technology, and competition. What will happen when this growing need for precision meets… whatever. Oh, boy.

Categories: General Advice

About Susan Marshall

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Susan A. Marshall is author, speaker and founder, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future, one person or team at a time.  Through personal experience and hands-on work with executives from diverse industries at all levels, Susan has had the privilege of helping thousands of people do the difficult and exhilarating work of growth.