I like to pay close attention to the words others use when they communicate. I am most in tune with prepositions and pronouns, and firmly believe we can tell a great deal about how a person sees himself and the world around him by counting the I/We, Us/Them, and For/With ratios. I also enjoy seeing how language becomes shared across a team over time. It’s no secret that people who spend a great deal of time together begin adopting each other’s word choice, and quite often mannerisms, dress, and interests. I believe it is extremely important for leaders to be in tune with and in many cases help to shape the behavior across a team; for it is the shared behavior of our teammates that ultimately shape the outcomes we generate. It is a proven fact that teams that use We, Us, and For in favor of the other word choices enjoy greater success, are more committed to the mission, and are more fulfilled by their individual and collective contributions.

Though our choice in the prepositions and pronouns we use may change over time, it is impossible to communicate effectively without their use. That said, we see buzzwords and colloquialisms phase in and out of use as quickly as the latest fashion. Unfortunately, some of those sayings stick around far too long. In fact, many make their way into our dictionary and become a permanent part of our lexicon. Some might think about that and simply dismiss it as they say, “It is what it is.” And though I don’t really have a problem with our dictionaries formally documenting the evolution of our language, “It is what it is” is killing me!

The only reason I could see myself using this phrase is in an effort to describe something that is ambiguous and difficult to categorize. For example, I have a canoe paddle that I received as a farewell gift hanging on the wall in my office. Is it a tool for rowing, a decoration, a weapon, a prop I use for air guitar, or something else? Truth is, it could potentially be all of these and more. “It is what it is,” or more specifically, it’s a paddle with many uses. But that’s not how we use this phrase. When we use this phrase we are really communicating one or more of the following…

  • It’s not my job
  • It can’t be fixed
  • It’s too hard
  • It’s not important to me
  • It’s not worth the effort
  • It doesn’t affect me personally
  • I have no ownership
  • I’m not interested in being a part of the solution

Don’t get me wrong. There are challenges in our life that we cannot control and worrying about things we can’t control is the quickest path to unnecessary stress. But, let’s say what we really mean. I remember an experiment from not too long ago when I vowed to use the word won’t whenever feeling compelled to use the word can’t. Two things happened. I found myself responding to opportunity with, “Yes, I will,” more often. And when I couldn’t get to Yes, my “No, I won’t,” was far more honest. I firmly believe that scrubbing “It is what it is” from our vocabulary will have a similar result. We will either communicate why we are accepting of the status quo, or we will take ownership, demonstrate leadership, and execute a plan that will allow us to one day triumphantly say, “It was what it was!” 

  • How often do you hear or say “It is what it is”?
  • How would you assess the vocabulary you are hearing across your team? Does it communicate a shared commitment to each other, the mission, and the vision?
  • How are you leveraging the power of language to shape behavior across your team?