Those powerful little one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words

No, this is not going to be an X-rated blog.  It’s not about those little words, fond though I am of them at times.

English may not have the beauty of Italian or the nuance of French.  (I remember multi-lingual friends from Montreal who confessed that they fought in Italian, made love in French, and made plans in English.)  But it does have these powerful little one-syllable words that have an unusual clarity and power.

I used those words recently when I saw an email announcing that someone was taking the job currently held by a close friend.  I immediately emailed that displaced friend saying simply:

“So is this being done –

    • to you?
    • by you?
    • with you?
    • for you?
    • at you?”

That’s all I needed to know.  Fortunately, in this case the answer was “with”.  The choice of one little preposition told me the whole story.  Everything else was details.

The power of those words is that they put actions into the context of relationships.  It’s easier at times just to think of our actions in a vacuum: “I was just doing my job.”  But that vacuum is artificial.   Our jobs are done to, by, with, for or at others.  Ignoring that reality doesn’t free us up. It just limits our ability to question and understand the relationship context and impacts of our actions.

This is the underlying tension of EHS jobs, for example.  EHS actions often involve actions based on three separate sets of relationships:

  • Governance actions (such as auditing) often are done to the business.
  • Service actions (such as training or getting permits for operations to continue) are done for the business.
  • Leadership actions (such as getting R&D to think about the long-term value of sustainability attributes of products) are done with the business.

Coming at your leadership partners (people you work with) the same way you come at your internal customers (people you work for) or your audit… targets (people you do things to) is hardly likely to be effective.  Being blind to the relationship context won’t help.  Asking about those powerful little words will.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

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