Multiple meanings

An interesting experiment conducted by the egonomics team.

We took 500 managers and executives from the same organization and separated them into 125 teams with four people per team. Then we wrote down the word leadership on a whiteboard and gave them 90 seconds individually without talking to one another, to write down as many words as they could that captured what leadership meant to them. Next we asked them to compare their lists and see how many words they matched as a team. A word was only considered a match if each team member had the same word as everyone else on the team, not with just one or two team members. The winning total? One. Only one team had one match. The other 124 teams had a grand total of zero matches. Weve conducted this exercise for years in over 40 countries using different words, i.e., trust, strategy, vision, risk management, branding, customer satisfaction, and even easier words like pizza, family and dog. On a good day, a team will have one or two matches”and only on the easiest words.

I think we easily underestimate how different are the meanings we can make and how imprecise our language actually is. And if our words are not holding us together, then it seems likely that something else is. That something else is harder to locate or label, but sometimes in moments of silence I think we sense it’s there.

Another interesting entry there looks at soft power. I think there’s a connection between that sort of power and the connections that aren’t about easily captured in words.

4 thoughts on “Multiple meanings

  1. Tom Guarriello

    When I was studying phenomenology in grad school we were constantly talking about the distinction between “the lived” and “the known.” Lived meaning is the experience we have of something; “the known” what we can conceptualize and verbalize about that experience. Needless to say, the lived is much richer than the known, and our understanding of one another rests on this common existential ground rather than on our ability to vividly articulate what it was like to be “elated,” “confused,” or “anxious.” Language will always be a pale substitute for experience, regardless of its precision. Oh, it’s thrilling to read a compelling description of a sunset, or the moment at which we realize ourselves in love, but neither will ever compare with the moment; with being-in-the-world in that distinct manner. I’ll bet the same holds for words like “leadership.” While most of us might use different words to capture its essence, the experience of being in the presence of a gifted leader is so deeply embedded, perhaps in evolutionary ways, that we are more likely to simply know it when we feel it.

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  2. sig

    Thanks Johnnie!

    I’ll happily embrace that excellent experiment in support of my critical attitude towards “tags” and “categorising”! 😀

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  3. Johnnie Moore

    Tom, thanks for putting that so clearly. It chimes well with my own training in gestalt. You say that language will be a poor substitute for experience regardless of its precision. I might go one further and say that its attempt at precision may often be the cause of the disconnnect. Precision will tend to cut away at ambiguity and connectedness, and therefore to the sense of flow that is part of lived experience.

    Sig, thanks for alerting to me to link between this notion and the problem of tags.

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