Trier recently pointed out to me how often we misappropriate military language in ways that harm our ability to communicate effectively.
When I wrote Just Work, I wrote about different kinds of biases that can cause us to use words and metaphors that harm others. The words we choose can reflect and reinforce a host of different biases. One thing I didn’t write about but that I’ve become aware of is the way that sloppy military metaphors can harm people with military experience (or “veterans,” the US term) as well as people harmed by war. Since I recently co-founded a company, Just Work, with an Air Force veteran, Trier Bryant, and since I co-founded another company with a Marine, Russ Laraway, this oversight on my part hits home.
Trier Bryant, who is a Black woman combat veteran, has helped me understand the ways in which sloppy military metaphors make light of real war, and can make it difficult to communicate effectively with employees who have military experience, people who have themselves or whose families have experienced actual wars as civilians. Other times these analogies reveal a startling lack of understanding and make the person making them look foolish. We should avoid them.
For example, entrepreneurs, especially in Silicon Valley, often describe setting up a “war room” to deal with a business crisis. While the business crisis and its attendant stress may be real, such analogies can remind people who’ve served in the military of real war rooms, or other experiences in war. This can be a trigger. It can be so distracting that it makes it unnecessarily challenging for them to participate in the conversation and contribute fully to the work. And it can put the person with military experience in a difficult situation. Telling a roomful of people who have never experienced the traumas that war causes that such terms make light of something serious is difficult. Often the response is too often something like, “lighten up” or, “it’s a commonly used term” rather than simply apologizing and using a different term: strategy room, planning room, crisis room, etc. It’s really not that hard to change the word.
I’ve heard several CEOs refer to themselves as “wartime CEOs” because of economic challenges, or more recently, the pandemic. This fails to take into account the real horrors of leading or experiencing combat. Another executive I know in Silicon Valley who was very conflict averse would wave a white handkerchief at the first sign of debate in a meeting. This wave of surrender, as though they were in battle and not having a debate about a business problem, annoyed a US veteran on his team. “I never saw anyone lose a leg in a staff meeting,” the veteran quipped.
Before you invite your team to play “war games” challenge yourself to come up with something better. Do you want to have fun? Play up the game part. “The unexpected game.” “The scenario game.” “The crisis game.” Do you want to focus on preparing for serious challenges? Call it “Disaster planning,” or “Competitive threat scenarios.” You can use a code name that reflects your culture. For example, at Twitter scenarios and projects to address them would be named after birds. Or you could just call it a simulation…
Sometimes people invoke military campaigns because they sound “cool,” for lack of a better word. However, there is nothing lighthearted or cool about war. Let’s not use sloppy military metaphors. And furthermore, the military doesn’t call many of their war games by that name. One of the Air Force’s most important exercises is called “Red Flag.”
Another common example of language that can land badly is “you’re killing it!” Recently a person whose family lived in a country where genocide was happening said their boss had praised him by saying “you killed it.” This casually violent language summonsed real traumas happening to people they loved, and was the worst possible way to offer praise. The boss, of course, didn’t intend any harm. But when the employee asked the boss not to use that phrase and explained why, the boss got defensive. He groused about “political correctness,” and asserted he needed to be able to be himself. I very much doubt that “using the phrase ‘killed it’” would make it onto the list of things that really made this person who they are.
It’s not that hard to change the words we use, and if doing so helps us communicate more clearly and collaborate more productively, why the hell would we insist on using a word that summons trauma or even discomfort for another person? Sure, the boss didn’t mean any harm when they said “you killed it.” But, how many times had that same boss said to their team, “intentions don’t matter, results do!”?