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The Word Collection Series #3

[July 11, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

SERIES INTRO: Inspired by a children’s book written by best-selling author Peter H. Reynolds titled The Word Collector (2018), we decided to collect some of our favorite words like the book’s main character, Jerome. Jerome is a little boy who is enthralled with the magic of words all around him. He eagerly collects words he hears, sees, and reads – powerful words, simple words, sad words, and dreamy words.

This is the third in our Word Collection Series where we thoughtfully select and write about words, apply them to the world of leaders, and then empty them into the wind for others to collect and share. Why? Because words matter. They are a powerful force that can be used constructively, or destructively. Words have energy and power. They can help bring healing, laughter, hurt, and harm. They can bring hope!

So here are a few of our interesting words and phrases – some are new, some have new meanings, some are worth reflecting on, and some are just marvelous to say.

Conversations, Nodversations and Nonversations. A conversation is when two or more people talk and exchange information about their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It is a back and forth process of communicating, listening and responding to what is said and heard. It requires listening, consideration and even a willingness to change one’s mind. It is an investment in the other person and yields a high return.

Much more common, however, are the nodversations and the nonversations. A nodversation is when two or more people are talking at each other with each party nodding their head in agreement in an attempt to look interested in what the other person has to say. (Try picturing your favorite bobble head!) In actuality, however, there is no listening going on. Rather the mental work is tied to devising your own next statement as you wait for a breath or a pause that allows you to jump in and share your own thinking. This approach is an investment in ourselves and our ideas, not the other person. Do you know people who practice this – we sure do!

Another common process is the nonversation – sharing information that is of no value (also known as “nonsense”). It is passing on information that is irrelevant, petty and gossipy, and does nothing to make us smarter or better. In fact, nonversations often drag us down into the abyss, send us on a rant or just plain makes us crazy (Scott & Sarikas, 2020).

In our daily lives, we interact with others multiple times per day. These interactions are the foundation of how we live, lead and do business. Our conversations either enhance our credibility or detract from it. When we take the time to converse, listen and thoughtfully respond, we have a much greater chance of a positive return on our relationships and an enhanced learning experience.

Bystander Effect. Have you ever stood by and let something untoward happen – something mean, ugly, dangerous, inappropriate, or just plain wrong? We see this all too frequently on the evening news in the form of witnessed harassment, bullying, corporate malfeasance, government misconduct and even murder. We also see it in our organizations in the form of marginalization, discrimination, unethical decision-making, dangerous shortcuts, harassment of many kinds and fraud.

Have you wondered if faced with such situations whether you would intervene, or would you become a silent bystander to someone’s unconscionable actions? This is a tough question because it speaks to our level of personal courage and integrity which no one wants challenged. Numerous studies show that people are less likely to intervene when others are present. We assume that someone else will do something and therefore we don’t have to. We hold back, often fearful of the consequences if we do step in. A common scenario is that one person engages in bad behavior while their colleagues ignore it, at best, and at worst, cover it up. You know what we’re talking about – averting your eyes, keeping your head down, deleting the file, turning around and going the other way. We become complicit by our silence. This inaction, and the underlying assumptions that support it, are called the bystander effect (Sanderson, 2020).

Understanding the bystander effect is aided by a better understanding of why “mostly good” people do bad things. Too often we tell ourselves that bad behavior is carried out by bad people because this belief reassures us that the good people we know (including us) couldn’t and wouldn’t do such things. However, good people do indulge in plenty of bad behaviors in our communities and workplaces. One of our favorite bad behaviors is seeing office staff at the start of every school year gather from the local supply closet the vast array of items that helps supplement their child’s school list. It’s like Christmas in July!! Many colleagues see this but don’t want to raise a hand and draw attention to it – causes too many problems for them in the end. A minor bad behavior – but you get the point. It all starts small.

So, what is it that leads us to make bad choices? Psychologist Dr. Sanderson’s research on social norms (2020) gives us many insights into this question. The first fundamental reason is that people will do things in a group setting that they would never do on their own because they believe they won’t be held responsible for their actions because they are anonymous. In fact, the frequency and severity of our bad behavior is greater when we are incognito – wearing a mask, wearing a costume, operating in the dark, posting anonymously, and even conferencing on calls without video. (Busted!)

A second reason that good people succumb to harming others relates to when someone of authority is doing it and/or instructs us to. In a famous study conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University (1963), Milgram studied the psychological processes that had buttressed the murders of millions of innocent victims during the Nazi Holocaust. He identified the human tendency to rationalize that we are less responsible for acts we are instructed to do and that the authority figure assumes the responsibility for any negative outcomes, absolving us of the wrong-doing. Neurological studies of our brain utilizing MRI imaging further support this, demonstrating a lower level of brain response (meaning we experience the action less intensely) when a person does something they are ordered to do versus when they do the same thing under their own volition (Sanderson, 2020).

A third reason good people do bad things is because they have come to believe that their actions are serving a worthy purpose or the greater good – think about cults, fanaticism, ENRON, as well as concern about loyalty first, enhanced performance, and the organization’s bottom line.

Understanding the factors that too often lead good people to stay silent, do nothing and do bad things can help us create the tools and strategies we need to stop the deviance. We can break the toxic norms and cycles of silence in our organizations by consciously fostering a culture in which ethical behavior is rewarded, and protectionism and silence are not. This is not easy. Specific interventions are presented in the following section to help us step up and lead with courage.

Moral Courage. The opposite of the bystander effect is moral courage. This is when we choose to do something (intervene) rather than watch in silence, even in the face of peer pressure and/or potential negative social consequences, because inaction will compromise our values. Moral courage promotes the ability to stand up against the status quo. It entails a willingness to incur ostracism, shame, blame, labeling and targeting for doing the right thing. Moral courage involves speaking up in situations where social norms push us toward silence (Sanderson, 2020).

Research demonstrates that people are more likely to display moral courage when they believe their actions will make a difference and they feel confident about their own judgment, values and ability. The flip side of this is also true. When people feel that their actions will not make a difference, they stay silent. This cuts right to unhealthy living. A meta-analysis of sexual harassment in organizations revealed that only one-quarter to one-third of people who had been harassed at work actually reported it to a supervisor, and only 2-13 percent filed a formal complaint (Cortina and Berdahl, 2008). And indeed, 68 percent of people who claimed a sexual harassment occurrence reported that they also received some type of retaliation by their employer and a full 65 percent lost their job within the year. In other words, speaking up did not make a positive difference and, in fact, led to negative consequences.

As leaders, we can create environments that encourage and reward ethical behavior and healthy cultures. Here are a few interventions from the research:

  • Support honest exchanges between leaders and employees about ethical behavior. Talk about the slippery slope of small, unethical, seemingly inconsequential choices. Share examples of bystander effect and the negative impact on society. Make a commitment to creating a healthier culture. This must be supported at the top of the organization – it cannot just be talk-the-talk.

  • Hire ethical leaders. Be willing to hire, fire and promote based on core values, not just business competencies and skills.

  • Refuse to tolerate unethical behavior at all levels. Don’t ignore bad behavior by the c-suite, stars, high producers, or friends of the family. Establish rules and controls that restrict tempting but dishonest actions – gift-giving from vendors, dangerous shortcuts, falsifying expenses for reimbursement, etc. Monitor and report out on your findings, taking equitable action as needed.

  • Create strong anti-retaliation policies. People will report more if they believe they will be protected. And reporting actually leads to better behaviors overall. It is equally important to have fair processes in place to investigate the allegations and circumstances, and determine if such reported behavior occurred as well as the surrounding circumstances before action is taken.

  • Create cues and nudges that promote ethical behavior. Unethical choices don’t usually arise when there is careful and deliberative thought. Most often they begin almost accidentally or unintentionally. Small reminders can make a big difference such as required signatures for employee review of a code of conduct, or digital prompts when a shortcut is taken that requires a physical acknowledgement before proceeding.

  • Model ethical leadership. There is a high ROI for leaders who are viewed by their employees as having high character (e.g., integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion). In a study summarized in Harvard Business Review (Kiel, 2015), researchers found that CEOs who were perceived by their employees as having high character had nearly five times greater the return on assets than those with low ratings. Ethical behavior pays off. Recent examples of ethical leadership behaviors in the wake of a global pandemic and civil unrest include: CEOs taking pay cuts when their company was hit hard by pandemic, reductions in bureaucracy and hierarchy to promote rapid decision-making and adaptation, prioritizing personal accountability for all employees regardless of whether they are working on-site or remotely, having difficult conversations about implicit and explicit bias in the workplace, and creating systems that promote fairness, justice and human rights.

  • Speak up in healthcare settings about patient safety. Create systems that support challenging a person of higher authority about shortcuts and breeches that could harm patients. Leaders that put the safety of patients over the political and social dynamics in their organizations are walking the ethical talk.

When we spend so much time in organizations filled with toxic norms and dysfunction, it is often easier to ignore the ugly and the scandalous than to invent the energy to replace it. The deviance becomes normalized. The social norms shift and, eventually, it can take your soul. You owe it to yourself to not let this happen. So, don’t be a bystander. Consciously practice the moral courage needed to create something better – healthy cultures that promote speaking up, respect and fairness. It’s okay to begin with small steps toward this goal. You may not always get it right, but this journey is important for healthy leadership.

Hackathon. Hackathons are a forum to bring diverse groups of people together to rapidly solve problems in the digital world. They do this through the generation of new ideas and the development of actual software products or prototypes that can be used in the real world (MOQDigital Marketing, 2018). Hackathon solutions benefit from the contributions of a diverse group of experts as well as a large variety of abilities and values. Hackathons move away from the status quo, elitism, exclusivity and silos to approaches that promote a better understanding of the whole and the parts.

Our organizations can learn from the Hackathon process. As leaders strive to recover from recent difficulties quickly and achieve competitive advantage, hackathons can be designed to focus on key problems or opportunities that go beyond the digital world. By gathering and building diverse teams around a common vision with senior leadership support (space, resources and encouragement), new ideas can be quickly generated, collaboration enhanced and new approaches and products developed to create a better future. You might even make a few new friends along the way.

Portmanteau. Portmanteau is a word whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms or words. A commonly known portmanteau is the word brunch that comes from breakfast and lunch. Another example is dramedy (from drama and comedy) or a Korean dish called Ram-Don, a portmanteau of ramen and udon. And since we are referencing food, how about the Turducken (from turkey, duck and chicken) – which could also just be a cooking experiment gone wrong! And, of course, two of our favorite portmanteaus are nonversation and nodversation from the word’s nonsense or nod in combination with conversation, respectively.

In an excerpt from the upcoming novel “Set My Heart to Five” by Simon Stephenson (Ranking, 2020), a human-like bot named Jared talks about the emotions of humans and becomes quite enamored with the word “Michigander.” He states that humans from Michigan think the word to be a hilarious portmanteau word but says they are wrong and that the word would better describe a male goose from Michigan rather than the citizens. We think Jared-the-bot has a good point.

The word portmanteau is an exotic word that’s marvelous to say. It’s even more marvelous, however, to find your own portmanteaus and weave them into the conversation – or would that be a nonversation?

Titter Time: stupid conversations

Stupid conversations make sense when you are talking to someone special.

~ Author Unknown


Cortina, L. and Berdahl, J. (2008). Sexual harassment in organizations: A decade of research in review. In C. Cooper and J. Barling (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Behavior: Micro Perspectives, 469-497. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kiel, F. (2015, April). Measuring the return on character. Harvard Business Review, 20-21. Retrieved from

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.

MOQDigital Marketing (2019, April 23). Benefits of a hackathon [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Portmanteau (2020). Retrieved from

Rankin, S. (2020, June 1). See a first look at set my heart to five, the book behind Edgar Wright’s next adaptation. Explore Entertainment. Retrieved from

Reynolds, P. (2018). The Word Collector. New York: Orchard Books.

Sanderson, C. (2020). Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scott, K. & Sarikas, B. (2020, June 12). The word collection [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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