The ubiquitous words deserve, amazing, magical and miracle fill the airwaves and visual media as the holiday season approaches. But those popular (even if over-used) terms of commercial speech do not suit Human Resource and Compensation applications. The words considered most powerful for enticing audiences to buy things just don't work for us.
Consider the kinds of pitches made in advertising presentations on TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. Notice the words they use ...
- You deserve (insert the product or service being advertised)!
- This (insert the product or service being advertised) is amazing!
- Enjoy the magical season with (insert the product or service being advertised)!
- The miracle of Christmas is enhanced by (insert the product or service being advertised)!
You hear exhortations like that so often you probably don't even notice it; but compensation people better not say such things. Not even sales executives could get away with using those exaggerated hyperbolic words to communicate personnel matters. Imagine a manager saying things like this during a performance review discussion:
- You deserve this raise.
- That achievement was amazing.
- This reward is magical.
- Your ability was a miracle.
The very same terms that are so wonderfully exciting when they describe things for sale go over like a lead balloon when used to describe compensation situations. The phrases somehow lose their compelling power. After struggling to find ways to put the words into an HR context, I couldn't even bring myself to put an exclamation point at the end of the sentences! They sound patronizing, childish, insulting or foolish ... maybe all four negative adjectives fit. Once those golden phrases of product marketing are applied to people in the workplace, they no longer seem appropriate. They just don't sound right.
Typical everyday advertising puffery turns into a silly statement or a ridiculous claim when you insert the same words into a performance management context. What is appealing in a mercantile commercial suddenly becomes repulsive when inserted into a workplace reward communication.
Deserve, amazing, magical and miracle are certainly words that appear to be extremely effective in persuading people to spend money. Otherwise, we wouldn't see them as often as we do in commercial advertising. But why do they not work as well in the world of human resource management? It appears that motivational impact is drained from the words when placed in a different context. Does the language have to change when you describe people instead of things? Why should the terms that excite positive emotional responses in buyers be so wrong for describing human workplace interactions? Perhaps a completely different vocabulary is needed to assure that employees get as much positive attention as objects, things or services offered for sale.
Words don't always clarify concepts as well as we expect they will. Makes me shake my head in disappointment, since I remember very well the many volatile angry arguments that took place when the name applied to our discipline changed from "personnel" to "human resources." Guess that new terminology didn't improve things as much as was hoped, either. But words still carry power, expressing values and showing intentions. Maybe we just need better new ones.
I think we deserve an amazing set of words that will supply us with magical miracles every day.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience in most industries. After corporate HR posts and consulting CEO roles, he was Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI before returning to consulting in 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and frequent expert witness in reasonable executive compensation court cases, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
Carnival barker image by Eddy, courtesy of Creative Commons