Monday, September 23, 2013

Reduce CYA, Boost KSA

I recently learned about a skill that executives need to use in their emails to move up the corporate ladder: it's called CYA. There are debates about when CYA was first introduced to the English language, but none put it more eloquently than the late William Safire of The New York Times in 1987. Safire defined CYA as "to diffuse responsibility," and related it to another ass-related term that means "to hustle."
The first two initials of C.Y.A. stand for ''cover your,'' and the dread ''a'' word is expressed variously as rear end, butt, behind, backside, tail, seat, or, if you are President Reagan, keister. The objection to the operative word is of long standing; a new sense has evolved that uses the word for the posterior as a synecdoche for the whole person, and now to move one's backside means merely to move oneself quickly. Thus the initials today are an anachronism, euphemizing a meaning that has changed.
While the digital age has made CYA easier than ever before, covering your ass is not a new phenomenon. Before email, there were memos filled in triplicate. And a few thousand years before that, there was the story of Adam and Eve, in which diffusing responsibility (and disobeying God) led to man's banishment from the Garden of Eden. So why is CYA an important skill that we need to learn? What would the world be like if we always had to take responsibility for our actions?

For sure, it would be a boring. It would be like watching one long post-game news conference, with the losing team offering nothing but cliches to explain their poor performance: "We had our chances and just didn't execute. We need to work hard this week and take it one game at a time."

But it would also create a greater sense of camaraderie, where everyone on a business team shares responsibility no matter what the outcome. Call it socialism, or a world of make-believe, but who knows? Maybe there will come a time when employees focus less on covering their ass, and more on kicking some ass.

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