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.

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.

Is trust a term and condition?

I was struck by the news this morning of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB Union on employment status. The latest in a line of challenges to self employment and the so called gig economy.

Employees will now be able to opt to have 28 days paid holiday and a guaranteed hourly rate above the minimum wage, in return they will have to accept to follow the delivery route set out by the company rather than choosing the order in which they deliver their parcels.

The logic presented by the company is that if they’re going to guarantee an hourly rate then they need to ensure that couriers take the most efficient route. Which on first reading makes sense, but also raises an underlying question.

Is the suggestion that people are less likely to seek the most productive route if they are paid by the hour, that they’re more likely to (for want of a better word) slack? Or is it that the company don’t care about lack of productivity if they’re not paying for it, that’s the courier’s (and subsequently the customer’s) problem?

Whichever way you look at it, it points to an interesting interpretation of the contract of employment – that “terms” trump the psychological aspects of the employment relationship between worker and employer. It suggests issues of trust.

My guess is that the company is trying to distinguish between the self employed and employed by taking away a freedom that their current couriers appreciate and enjoy. If you want the good stuff (holidays and guaranteed wage rates) then there’s a cost to you too – the deal is on the back of losing an earlier employment tribunal.

But regardless of the specifics of the case it raises questions for us all. What assumptions do we make about the behaviours of people that work for us? And do those assumptions help or hinder what we are collectively trying to achieve?

Events have become stale and boring

Last week whilst on holiday, I found myself unexpectedly observing my own profession. I’d call it a busman’s holiday, but to be honest it wasn’t as bad as that sounds. The hotel I was staying in was hosting a leadership event for a company that will remain unnamed.

I was curious to start with, I was in a different continent these were different cultures and customs. How would it play out?┬áThe answer was depressingly like every leadership event I’ve ever attended.

Over the last 25 years I’ve seen and participated in hundreds of these. The locations change, the companies are different, the participants come and go. But the structure, the content and the general formula remain boringly static. I’d love to think this was because of the high success rate, but I think it has more to do with our collective lack of imagination.

Key note

Speed dating

Break out groups

“Fun” session

Plenary

Jiggle around, rename, reshape, but don’t alter a winning formula.

It makes me wonder how much business plc. invests in these sessions per year, what the value is and whether there is anything but a placebo effect to be achieved. There must be examples out there of doing things really differently (and NO paint balling doesn’t qualify, nor does using a quirky venue).

There’s a dearth of talent and thinking in this whole space, rather than excitement and creative thinking it feels more like the inevitability of new year’s eve. We talk about it with excitement and hope, we believe everyone else is having an amazing time, but the reality is an expensive version of an ordinary event, which we could and should do without.