Power in naming things

When I first read Dare To Lead by Brené Brown a few months ago, I hated it. I ranted to my book club about how it’s not actionable. It’s true but not useful, I said, because it’s all why and no how.

Now that I have a few months of life experience under my belt since I read it, I understand the value. Turns out, it’s one of the most impactful books I’ve read in years, because Brené is great at giving things names.

Some examples:

  • Courage over comfort” meaning we should choose the hard thing that leads to growth over the easy comfortable thing.
  • Rumbling” as a term for honest, vulnerable discussions that feel uncomfortable but build trust.
  • Clear is kind, unclear is unkind” meaning that if you’re not being clear about your thoughts and feelings then you’re being unkind, even if you think you’re doing that to be kind.
  • Living into our values” as a reminder to pick your 2 (and only 2) values and use them to make value-based decisions.

The thing is that I knew about all of those things already. I knew that being honest is good. I knew that the hard thing is often the right thing. Blah blah blah.

But giving those guidelines a name made them real and specific and memorable. A name gives us a mantra to repeat in our heads when we come across a tough choice.

The book The Culture Code talks about naming things and repeating those names over and over and over until they become a part of the culture:

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so.

This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically over-communicate priorities. The leaders I visited with were not shy about this. Statements of priorities were painted on walls, stamped on emails, incanted in speeches, dropped into conversation, and repeated over and over until they became part of the oxygen.

Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

Later, it talks about what a good catchphrase looks like:

The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP), “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs), “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks), “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants). They’re hardly poetry, but they share an action-based clarity. They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.

Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

None of those have a surprising message. Obviously companies want their employees to work hard and be nice, for example. But naming them and repeating them gives them power.

Since understanding this, I’ve been working on defining what my own catchphrases or rules are. My friend and I just talked about this on our podcast, in fact! Later in the week I’ll post the polished list I’ve decided on.


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