How Plain Talk Helps You "Walk the Walk"

By Brett Beasley

A new study reveals a link between unclear values statements and unethical behavior.


A proverbial question asks, "You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?"

Long ago, the writer George Orwell made the observation that there may be a relationship between the two. The way we talk, he suggested, might affect the way we "walk."

Orwell's explanation focused on politics. Most political speech and writing, he said, is "the defense of the indefensible." So rather than tell the truth, politicians use "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" to make "lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Orwell called on his reader to avoid unclear ways of speaking and writing. This was because, as he put it, "an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely." Clear writing, he reasoned, could stop the process of decline—or even reverse it. "If one gets rid of these habits," he said, "one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

How Unclear Values Cloud Our Moral Vision

Was Orwell right? Some may disagree with his take on the link between bad writing and bad politics. But it appears that Orwell's theory applies well to something he never considered: Corporate values statements. A new study shows that unclear writing in values statements matters. Unclarity sends a signal that a corporation can't be trusted. And, according to the study's authors, it's a reliable signal, too. They find that corporations that hide behind fuzzy, unclear values often do have something to hide.

The team of researchers behind the study, led by David Markowitz (Oregon), considered the values statements of 188 S&P 500 manufacturing companies. Markowitz was joined by Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern), Jeffrey T. Hancock (Stanford), and Francesca Gino (Harvard).

They drew inspiration from earlier studies that had shown that companies with negative annual earnings write in a less clear manner in their reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). They reasoned that a similar process might occur with ethics as well.

Together the team was able to chronicle which companies had ethics infractions (like environmental violations, fraud, and anticompetitive activity). They also determined which codes of conduct were "linguistically obfuscated." These codes were full of abstraction, jargon, and long, overly complex explanations.

The results of the study proved their hypothesis correct: Companies with ethics infractions did resort to unclear language in order to hide them.

The researchers began to ask additional questions. They wanted to know if unclear language actually works. Does it effectively hide a company's problems? They showed corporate values statements to study participants and asked about their perceptions of the companies behind them. The participants saw the companies with clearly-written values statements as more moral, warmer, and more trustworthy, compared to those with jargon-laden values statements.

The Deception Spiral

Then the researchers decided to go a step further. They had shown that unclear language is often a consequence of unethical behavior. Now they wanted to see if it could cause unethical behavior as well. This would help them determine if something like the vicious cycle Orwell theorized really could exist.

This time, they took their work to the lab. They showed study participants values statements and then handed participants a list with scrambled words like “TTISRA” and “LONSEM.” They asked participants to unscramble the words and gave them opportunities to earn money. They introduced an element of competition as well. They could earn bonuses for unscrambling a greater number of words than 80% of the participants in their group.

At the same time, the researchers laid a trap. “TTISRA,” could be unscrambled to spell “ARTIST.” “LONSEM” could become “LEMONS.” But they included some words like OPOER, ALVNO, and ANHDU, which do not spell a word no matter how participants rearranged the letters. This trap enabled them to measure whether people cheated during the activity. If the participants said they unscramble the words without solutions, the researchers concluded they must have cheated in reporting their score.

The participants who had seen the unclear statements were more likely to cave to the temptation. Those who had seen the clear statement tended to stay on the moral path. Most importantly, this meant that the researchers had found clear support for a cycle similar to the one Orwell had described. This "deception spiral" as they call it, meant that unethical behavior can lead to unclear statements about values. And unclear statements about values can, in turn, contribute even more to unethical behavior.

Put it in Practice

Markowitz and his colleagues write, “It is continually important to consider how corporations communicate, as their word patterns reveal social and psychological dynamics such as deception and further connect to how people think, feel, and behave.” Here's what to keep in mind as you craft your corporate values statement.

Avoid floweriness.

As Bethany McLean says, "The more grandiose a company's code of conduct is, the more flowery it is...the more suspicious you should be."

Exercise friendliness with caution.

Avoiding obfuscation does not mean we should always communicate in an informal way. In fact, an earlier study by some of the study's authors found that overly personal language in values statements can backfire by causing employees to take the values less seriously. They write that a company's overly personal, informal "we" language can increase "levels of dishonesty among its members."

Pursue fluency.

The key is to communicate in a way that is easy to process, or "fluent," as psychologists would put it. For this purpose, Orwell's classic advice still holds true:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Markowitz and Orwell would both remind us that what we call communication style "is a matter of real substance for leaders, and especially when it comes to stating our values. 


Further Reading

Markowitz, D. M., Kouchaki, M., Hancock, J. T., & Gino, F. (2021). The Deception Spiral: Corporate Obfuscation Leads to Perceptions of Immorality and Cheating BehaviorJournal of Language and Social Psychology40(2), 277-296. 


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