A Shared Vocabulary

Kim Scott
2 min readDec 4, 2023

A shared vocabulary helps people know what to say when they don’t know what to say. I’m referring to unconscious bias. But pointing bias out is awkward; most people don’t know what to say. And they fear retribution for pointing it out, or looking like they are virtue signaling.

That’s why it’s helpful to have a norm of disrupting bias publicly, and a go-to phrase that they know to say when they observe bias, whether it’s directed at them or at another person. As a good behavior becomes acceptable, people start to engage in it, making it yet more acceptable, creating either a virtuous cycle. On the other hand, if the usual response to bias is silence, bias gets reinforced. Our virtuous cycle becomes vicious. Let’s avoid vicious cycles! Reassure your team that disrupting bias is not public criticism, it’s a quick collaborative correction and a sign of accountability.

The first step is to create a shared vocabulary. You are not the word dictator. Sit down with your team and get their suggestions for a common phrase that everyone can agree to use to point out bias. If everyone is speaking the same language to disrupt bias at work, upstanders and people harmed will find it much easier to speak up. People who said or did a biased thing will more quickly understand that this is a helpful correction, not a character assassination.

The key in this step is to allow the team to pick their own vocabulary. If your team comes up with their own words or phrases, rather than having you dictate them, they’re more likely actually to use them. However, you do need to offer some guidance. Bias disruption will backfire if the phrases chosen are themselves unconsciously biased.

Words matter. Give some time for your team to debate this. You can encourage “I” statements that invite everyone to consider the situation the way the speaker does. But the interruption doesn’t have to be an “I” statement.

Remind everyone of the goal: to disrupt bias without disrupting the meeting, to hold up a mirror for each other because you care about one another, not to attack people or indulge in self-righteous shaming.

Once a catchphrase is agreed upon, make sure everyone practices using it until the whole team knows how to deploy it quickly and kindly, without drama. Make sure that it’s not being weaponized. People should use it to invite others in, not to call them out.

In this episode, Wesley and I discuss this process with Dr. Philip Hickman. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, or here: https://www.justworktogether.com/podcast-season-2



Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor & Just Work. She is co-founder of Radical Candor, Inc which helps teams put the ideas from the book into practice.