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Thought Leadership

Why It Is So Crucial to Define Key Terms

Graphic showing the text: Leading in the Middle: Why It Is So Crucial to Define Key Terms

This article is part of our Leading in the Middle Series. Each month, we will share a Thought Leadership article by UNC Executive Development Senior Associate Dean Dave Hofmann on how to lead effectively from any position in an organization.


As a leader in the middle (and all leaders are ultimately in the middle of some set of stakeholders), you are often working with individuals from other parts of your organization. This type of work is the goal of matrix organizations, cross-functional teams, and other cross-functional arrangements.

One question you need to include in your leadership toolbox is quite simple, but crucial:

“When you say x, what do you mean?”

The underlying principle here is defining key terms. When working across their organizations, people will often use the same term meaning different things. Examples of key terms are “success,” “innovation,” “key metrics,” “analysis,” and “sub-optimal.”

Marketing, for example, might define a new product launch as successful if it goes “big” quickly, spurring social media buzz and a flood of orders. Supply chain, on the other hand, might define success as a slow and steady roll-up of orders provided by some new suppliers. Without clarity on this key term, every time marketing talks about going big, supply chain starts to hesitate, pause, and slightly push back. Marketing, in turn, pushes harder on the big launch, supply chain hesitates…and so it goes until the attributions begin: “Supply chain folks are so risk-averse…” “Marketing doesn’t care about quality delivery, they just want the social media buzz…”

Here are three short examples.

First, I was in a meeting recently where it seemed like folks were talking over each other. The topic was “innovation” and how the organization could leverage it. It was a rich, engaging, and active conversation. But in the midst of it, things started to heat up just a bit (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Then, a key question was asked of two people in the meeting, which was (yep, you guessed it): “When you say ‘innovation,’ what do you mean?”

One person’s answer focused on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. The other person’s answer focused on trying to be agile in response to fluctuating market trends. This simple question provided much-needed clarity to the conversation, and everyone quickly agreed to be more precise moving forward by labeling the first concept “emerging technology” and the other concept “innovation.” Simple question. Big impact.

Second, about a week later, I was in another conversation with a colleague about innovating our “curriculum.” As they described idea after idea, I asked more and more questions. To be honest, I was not really following the conversation, where they wanted to go, or what they were trying to achieve. Eventually, I paused and said, “When you say ‘curriculum,’ what do you mean?” As it turns out, their definition was much broader than mine. Once that was clarified, I had a better understanding of what they were communicating, and my questions began to make sense to them. Simple question. Big impact.

Third, two leaders I know were working in partnership with another organization toward achieving positive results for both organizations. Unfortunately, the conversation, which had been going on for a while, was not in the most constructive place. As I talked with these leaders, I wondered if the tension was being driven by differing definitions of “partner” and “partnership.” I encouraged them to arrive at an understanding of their counterpart’s definition of “partner” and how it might differ from their own. That is, I encouraged them to ask, “When you say ‘partner’ what do you mean?” Not surprisingly, they found their definitions of “partnership” differed substantially. This allowed everyone to gain clarity, which resulted in the two parties significantly changing the nature of their work together.

I have observed firsthand that this question provides timely, critical clarity. Even when the definition of a key term is close, asking this question still aligns all parties on the same “page” within the conversation. Often, however, they find that their respective definitions are quite different, and the clarity they subsequently gain is well worth the short investment of time it takes to define a key term.

“When you say x, what do you mean?”
Simple question. Big impact.


To read more from Dave Hofmann visit his Substack and subscribe
Dave Hofmann is Senior Associate Dean of UNC Executive Development and Hugh L. McColl, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.