40. Habit #11: Watch Your Language

This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

Day-to-day, it’s pretty easy to see power. Look at the images below and ask yourself, “Who’s in charge?”


In these examples, anyone can see who’s in charge. There are uniforms, body language, and context to help you. All of these make it easy to confirm to certain expectations should we find ourselves in similar situations. We don’t have to think about how to behave. We know where the power is.

Now, look at the picture below and ask yourself, “Who’s in charge?”


It’s a trick question. You can’t know, because your eyes only take you so far. And this is exactly what we are facing in the modern workplace. A huge diversity of people doing lots of different work.

But in the conventional management hierarchy, once you figure out who’s in charge, it’s not so bad. You know who to convince and who you can safely ignore. But Holacracy screws this up. With everyone having multiple roles, how do you know which perspective, or which authority, is at play in any given moment? Well, since we can’t rely on visual cues, we have to use words.

Shifting in and out of roles can happen instantaneously. This provides great flexibility, but also more responsibility for communicating when contexts have shifted. We do this by using phrases like:

  • “To Mike as Finance…”
  • “Can I engage you in a role?”
  • “Oh, my head’s not into my Development work right now — can you ask me later?”
  • “Are you looking for an official decision from my role, or are you just wanting my opinion?”

These little tags are significant. Critical even. Because they provide the necessary context that is missing from the visual cues. This is why Holacracy practice requires new ways of speaking.

Differentiating people from roles (but not disassociating them) allows us to do amazing things we couldn’t do otherwise. We can “put on” 10 different roles, or shift contexts 20 times during one interaction. Words allow us to do that.

Since Holacracy differentiates people from roles, then gives roles authority, it disrupts our assumptions about who is in charge. So when Janice, the founder of the company, walks into the room, we can’t immediately know what capacity she is in. And she might not know either. So, if she walks in and starts directing things — so what? Shouldn’t we all have the right to be imperfect? Shouldn’t we all have the right to have a bad day?

Holacracy allows us to distrbute power, but it doesn’t happen automatically. It’s a group effort. So, if a former boss or manager starts telling you what to do, just get clarity by asking, “Are you making a request of one of my roles, or just sharing your opinion?”