How to Foster Teamwork: Rule #5

“Mind your language.”
Rhys Newman and Luke Johnson

Newman and Johnson make the case for standardizing terminology for design teams, and you won’t get any argument from me about that for proposal teams.  My book even includes a checklist of categories of terminology to be standardized.

But here, I’d like to address a different point they make about the language we use and its effect on proposal teamwork, using the specific (and extreme) case of profanity to illustrate the general point.  

Language and Age

I remember the first time a young woman said “shit” in front of me – not to me, I hasten to clarify.  She suddenly realized she had just used a (minor) profanity in front of someone old enough to be her mother.  She turned to me and said, “I’m sorry.”

I thought for a nanosecond (Was I really that old?  How the hell had that happened?) and said to her, “Would you watch your effin’ language?”  Except I didn’t euphemise it.

Her laughter signalled the last time any younger person in that work group apologized to me for using profanity.

Language and Gender

I don’t know how often men have apologized to me for their profanity, but it was usually when I was the only woman in the room, or the only career civilian, or both.

I don’t know how often I’ve overheard conversations between men that I considered super crude, but it was usually in passing in a hallway.

I’ve had my own profanity remarked on only a few times, and only by younger colleagues.  Changing my language to respond to the implied criticism, I’ve had my euphemisms mocked, again by younger colleagues.

Language and Proposal Teamwork

There’s something about the pressure of RFP responses that brings out profanity in those even remotely inclined to it.  In a small group setting, a well-timed profane interjection (aimed at the situation rather than a teammate) can relieve tension and build collegiality.  And the use of profanity in an obviously humorous way can have the same effect.

On the other hand, careless or routine use of profanity with no consideration for who’s in the room can create tension and diminish a sense of team.

Engage Brain Before Opening Mouth

Profanity aside, most of us speak differently to our grandmothers than to our friends.  Heck, we even speak differently to different friends.  We think, dare I say it, before we speak.

So, too, it should be on proposal teams.  We work through extended work days, travelling and eating together (sometimes), and suffering together (always).  All this togetherness breeds a false sense of intimacy.  In many cases, we don’t know our teammates as well as we think we do.

Proposal teams are thrown together, with little time to develop working norms.  In that environment, minding our language is an essential component of working together effectively and respectfully.


Proposals are schedule-driven projects that require a strict project management discipline. Right? Partly right. In proposal terminology, I’d call that answer incomplete.  Proposals are projects, for sure, but they’re also the output of teamwork. I’ve recently been learning how much the design business has in common with proposals.

This post is one of a series on proposal teamwork, inspired by a fabulous article on Medium on design teams:
“No Dickheads! A Guide to Building Happy, Healthy, and Creative Teams.”

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