The Importance of Eliminating Duck Words

The Importance of Eliminating Duck Words

Back in the days of black and white television, I watched Groucho Marx (comedian and film star) host a television show called “You Bet Your Life” where two contestants participated in a live game show (early reality TV?). Before the contestants were led onto the stage, Groucho would explain to the audience that if either of the contestants said the secret word they would win a hundred dollars. While he was explaining this, a wooden duck would descend with a placard in its mouth upon with the secret word on it. If one of the contestants said the secret word, the duck would descend with suitable fanfare and Groucho would hand the winner a one hundred dollar bill.

Fast forward to law school twenty years later, when, as a first year law student I was tasked with writing my first paper for a class on civil procedure. Being several years older than most of my classmates, with army experience behind me and working a full time job at night to support my law school habit, I felt I had the real life experience to not only write about the law but also to comment upon its application in the real world. And comment I did, turning in a paper that was well researched, but also strongly opinionated. And the professor gave me a D! I immediately voiced my dismay that I had gotten a D on what I considered a paper that deserved an A. The professor then asked me if I was a practicing lawyer or a sitting judge? I responded no of course not. “In that case,” he said, “you should not presume to voice an opinion about the actual application of the law since you have neither the expertise nor the experience to do so.”

I left that encounter with the eye opening realization that those in charge of my legal education had no interest in my opinion and, if I continued to voice it, the results would be less than acceptable to me.

Being a realistic person, I realized I knew how to survive the law school experience and get the best grades possible from a system that wasn’t interested in anything I had to say unless it sounded exactly like what it had to say: the use of Duck Words! If I were able to discover the Secret Words that each professor uttered during the class and repeated them back to him at every chance I got, then, while I wouldn’t win a hundred dollars, I would get a good grade! Since I was, and remain, argumentative and confrontational (otherwise why would I have gone to law school?), this approach didn’t sit well at first. However, as I experimented with the Duck Word approach, I found the more I employed it the better my grades were. And rather than fight a losing battle with a system I could not change, I spent the next three and half years discovering and regurgitating Duck Words until I graduated law school and could actually start thinking about the law and its application to real life.

Of course, Duck Words aren’t limited to game shows or law school. Every boss and every workplace is replete with Duck Words! All put in place to make sure employees don’t really think about their work but only continue to do their work. And employees have learned, often through painful experience, that any attempt on their part to ignore the use of Duck Words seldom goes well for them. Either the boss or their co-workers will quickly let them know they are not going to win the cash prize if they don’t continue to use the Duck Words and quit rocking the status quo. After a few times experiencing how not using the Duck Words doesn’t work employees, who are quick to understand the unwritten rules and what it means to violate them (just like I was in law school), get it and only speak in Duck Words whenever they are required or asked to communicate.

Of course, the enforced use of Duck Words in the workplace means the company loses the opportunity to benefit from hearing from the employees – the people who actually do the work! – about how operations, processes, procedures and systems could be improved. And what is even more depressing is the company never even knows these lost opportunity for innovation and creativity are occurring since everyone is uttering the same Duck Words so all must be right with the world.

The Bottom Line: Companies need to eliminate the use of Duck Words in the workplace since only by ensuring a true dialogue is occurring between those who actually do the work and those who are one step or more removed from the work can a company reap the benefits of an engaged workforce.

Thanks for reading.

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