12:30 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

OnWords: Finding Meaning In The Grains

Credit angela7dreams / Flickr / Creative Commons

At one time, the word granular was almost always reserved for something physical or technical, for example, as a measure of the resolution of a photographic emulsion, or of how fine the sugar.

But recently, I’ve noticed granular used in office settings to indicate a level of detail that the speaker would rather avoid. It’s generally said with a certain tinge of disdain as well, something like, “Well, we could talk about that some other time, but we don’t want to get into the granular level here.”

On one hand, this is good. It keeps meetings from getting bogged down and shows a certain amount of trust in those whose jobs require a high degree of attention to the details. If a leader uses the word in this context, it could also indicate that she does not want to be a micromanager—and that is a definite relief to anyone who has ever been micromanaged.

But on the other hand, the use of granular can be dismissive. The granular level is the level most workers deal with every day. It is the level that comprises the core of an organization’s duties and responsibilities.

Dismissing the granular level can also be seen as being uninterested in what the average worker, making her average salary, has to put up with. Using granular negatively can send the message that the speaker neither knows nor cares about the details that determine both the quality of the work and the stability of the organization. Utter ignorance of the granular level can easily lead to a lack of understanding of the needs of those who do the work, and from there to mismanagement and intra-organizational strife.

So maybe when we find ourselves trying to avoid the granular level of detail, we should ask ourselves what’s missing in our view from the top.