The power of language

The power of language to engage is nothing new to us. It’s why corporations spend millions each year on their advertising and marketing, testing the ways in which certain words resonate or repel their target audiences. A shift of one word in a sentence can move us from neutrality to engagement, from loathe to love. It’s also why political parties spend hours testing slogans and statements with focus groups, ensuring that the approved words are dropped into speeches and leaflets, time and time again.

Language is powerful, it has the power to change the way in which we think, believe. live and even dream. It can bring us together, or it can push us apart.

Whilst we spend so much time in organisations thinking about the language we use to appeal to consumers, service users or members, we spend so little time focussing on the language that we use with our colleagues internally. In so many organisations I’ve worked in, people who could write an email to their mother which would be warm, engaging and clear suddenly start to write missives to the masses which are almost indecipherable. We use jargon and language which is overly complex and unnecessary, often out of habit rather than intent. You particularly get to see this when you join a new organisation and start to learn the lexicon of the group.

Too often though, when we extend these phrases beyond our “group” they fail to land properly, be understood or to have the desired effect. Either because they’re simply incomprehensible, or because the language that we use does not connect. We write as if we are a business writing to a business, not a human being writing to a fellow human being.

When we talk about making the workplace more human, when we talk about engagement, when we make commitments to inclusion and allowing people to be themselves, we would be wise to start with words. The language that we use sets a tone for who we are, but more importantly it allows others to come along with us. If I understand, if I connect, if I feel, then believing becomes much easier to achieve.

Sometimes it isn’t how clever the message is, it’s how simply you can convey it.

You are as you act

Every day is full of a myriad of choices, ┬áthe majority of these are small and seemingly meaningless. Whether you hold open the door for someone that’s coming toward you, or put your hand in your pocket for the person sat on the pavement on your way into work. But in cumulation, these actions, these micro choices are the things that define who you are and how you present.

Our choices and our actions define us.

And likewise in organisations, the myriad of small things also define who we are. We can make statements about what we want to be, or what we think we are. We can create vision and values models that provide us with a semblance of reassurance, but ultimately how we act is how we are, not what we believe.

As a simple case in point, I was looking at the Sunday Times, Best Companies┬áthe other day and to my surprise towards the top is a company that I know a little about. If I were to share with you some of the practices that have taken place, the way in which employees have been treated, you would – like me – question how they managed to remain operational never mind receiving accolades. But the badge must mean that they’re great…

Our responsibility as leaders of organisations, as leaders of people is to bring the highest ethical standards into our work. We have a responsibility that should weigh heavily on our shoulders beyond the desire for acclaim. We need to act with the highest levels of honesty and integrity, because it is the right thing to do, not because it will be recognised.

Ultimately we are all responsible for our own choices and actions, there is no mitigation, no explanation. We are, not how we think, but how we act.

 

 

I already know who you are

A couple of events last week made me reflect on the assumptions that we so often make of others and how in doing so we build narratives that skew our perspective on the world. Every day is filled with multiple interactions that we evaluate with the aim of creating meaning.

Let me give you a most basic example. On Friday, driving home, there was an accident involving four cars. Inevitably with an accident that size in rush hour traffic, things got snarled up and slow and the journey took substantially longer than normal. As I passed the accident and moved into more free-flowing traffic I was aware of a driver behind a few cars behind me who seemed to be in a rush. She pulled out to overtake a car behind me and then I could see her gesticulating in the rear view mirror, unhappy with my speed.

The narrative commenced;

What’s her problem?

Why does she think she needs to be somewhere quicker than someone else?

Who the hell does she think she is?

By the time that she’d flashed her lights at me and driven off in a tail of smoke, I pretty much knew who she was and what she was about. But of course, I had no idea.

Was she trying to get to a sick or unwell relative? Was there a work or domestic emergency? Could she have been a surgeon trying to get to an operation? All of these thoughts were as entirely plausible as the reassuring answer that I’d come to…a Friday night nutter.

And of course at work we do the same, but once the narratives are built they’re maintained. People become, the moody one, the difficult one, the obstinate one, the quiet one with nothing to say. We create the stories that help us to justify our own behaviour, because it just makes things easier.

In the same way that I can tell you I intentionally slowed down by a few miles per hour to really hack the unknown driver off, I wonder what actions we take in the workplace to slow down the people that we’ve created a negative narrative about.

And I wonder how much more productive we could be if we entertained alternative possibilities?

If you want a much more articulate and thoughtful discussion of the same topic, then check out this by David Foster Wallace.

We need to embrace the truths that hurt

I’ll start off by explaining why I do the job I do. Simply, I want people to have a better experience of work, to feel safe at work, to be fairly rewarded in exchange for their efforts. You can call it making work better, making work human or any other nomenclature that is in the current vogue.

One of the downsides of my role is that no matter how hard I work, no matter what improvements and changes we make, there will always be challenges and questions about where we could have done more. That’s just the nature of the work we do in the society that we currently live in. The challenges will be different, but we have to accept that no matter what we do, it will never be enough.

One of the downsides of this is that we can homogenise criticism of our practice as always being unfair. “That’s employees for you, never happy” or, “If managers just did their jobs, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of this”. And the danger of this is we fail to see the truths that we need to embrace.

Just because we will always be the focus of challenge doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t justified. Just because we are doing our best and trying our hardest, doesn’t mean we don’t get things wrong. Just because we want to do good, doesn’t mean we sometimes don’t wrong.

Knowing how to separate out the noise from the real issues is critically important and incredibly hard. Listening to the truths that hurt is at the heart of exceptional practice. If we want to be better, if we strive to be the best, if we believe in creating something that can be called a legacy, then we need to recognise that sometimes we get things wrong.

Ours is a profession that has the ability to transform lives and bring out the best in people, it has the ability to make society a little bit better and to impact on generations to come. But with that power comes the potential to do the absolute opposite – and that is the truth that we should always hold close to our heart when we evaluate our impact and work.