George Orwell, in his wonderful 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” noted that language can corrupt thought. We apprehend the world based on the language we use, which is why Confucius said that the first thing he’d do if he were appointed to rule a country would be to fix the language. That is to say, if we actually want accountability and responsibility in the public and private sector, we need to fix our language. Currently we rely on the language of “Pass the Buck.” We should name those who make decisions and implement policies and then not forget either the people or the decisions when those choices fail.
Passive voice and sentence structure that diffuse responsibility infuriate me. I’m sure we’ve all sat at an airport, waiting for a delayed flight, and heard a customer service representative announce that the airline apologizes for the delay but “the incoming equipment has arrived late.” As though the airplane itself decided to take off and arrive late! Or another example: an advertisement for a Wall Street Journal conference on the financial crisis that claimed “the world’s financial system has broken down. Credit remains constrained, markets and regulatory regimes have failed.”
The world’s financial system hasn’t just “broken down.” Someone — or a group of someones — broke it! Credit isn’t “constrained” (that sounds like some mysterious force field is at work.) Simply put, financial institutions are not making loans… banks that have received billions of dollars in governmental aid are buying distressed financial assets at fire sale prices instead of renegotiating loans and making new ones to keep people in their homes and/or businesses.
That final assertion really irritates me. Regulatory regimes haven’t failed. Deregulation triumphed, pushed by many of the same business executives who now complain vociferously about economic conditions and advocated by the Wall Street Journal — the very same newspaper that held a conference back in March to profit from the troubles it helped produce. As a consequence, there weren’t enough regulatory staff overseeing the U.S. economy — which is why we are not only struggling to avoid a financial meltdown but must deal with issues of toy safety and food contamination in products ranging from spinach to hamburger to peanut butter on a regular basis.
Between 1990 and 2006, the total dollars in the U.S. budget spent for overseeing finance and banking increased merely 25 percent. And here’s an even more dramatic statistic: Between 1980 and 2006, a period covering more than a quarter-century of rapid expansion of the financial sector, the number of full-time equivalent Federal employees regulating finance and banking went up by less than 2,300. What goes on in public discourse happens inside companies and nonprofit organizations as well. A phrase like “customer service has decreased” leaves those responsible for the decisions that resulted in poorer customer service mysteriously unidentified.
A contrasting example is DaVita, a large kidney dialysis company, that has among the best clinical outcomes in the industry. This company’s culture is worth emulating. One of its core values is accountability; DaVita believes it produces service excellence. Accountability means that when the CEO has failed to remedy a problem, he stands in front of hundreds of employees and admits it. In doing so, he also admits that the situation is unacceptable. When he doesn’t know something, he admits that, too. No language like “the machine was not repaired,” but acknowledgement of who and what failed and why instead.
Accountability is the first step toward learning and improvement. If all we say is “the regulatory regime failed,” we don’t know why or how. If, instead, we note that specific people pushed for specific policies that resulted in insufficient staff to do the jobs they had, we are on the way to understanding and fixing the problem, as well as preventing its recurrence.
It behooves companies and society to speak the truth. How do you fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge and understand its cause — or, for that matter, its existence?