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.

The 7 qualities of exceptional practice

  1. Creativity – Whilst it might seem a strange one to start the list with, the ability to bring creativity into design and problem solving is one of the aspects that really sets exceptional practitioners apart. We can all suggest something we’ve done before, but can we imagine the new?
  2. Empathy – I’m really clear that this is different to sympathy – the cross that the profession has to bear. I’m talking about the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and consider the evidence from their perspective and to understand their lens.
  3. IQ – Sure, I know this isn’t fashionable, but I see a simple link between intellectual horse power and performance. It isn’t enough on its own, but without it you’re surely going to struggle.
  4. Curiosity – The people who excel are fascinated about learning more and constant discovery. They ask questions, explore and see opportunity in every circumstance. They’re restless and intellectually always on the move.
  5. Structured – I’ve written many times about the benefit of systems thinking in the world of work and the ability to structure and think systemically is key. This doesn’t mean that you need to be PRINCE2 qualified or an engineer, but you need to understand how things fit together and how to get started.
  6. Courage – This manifests in different ways, in the ability to have brave conversations, the comfort in being vulnerable and the drive to constantly want to do more and be better. Courage means that we address ourselves as well as others.
  7. Humility – Most of our practice is not about us and we need to be ok with that. We need to bathe in the glory of others, be proud of the contribution we’ve made and enjoy the success that we help build. Our gift is helping others to be the best they can be, not owning it for ourselves.

Change your words, change your thinking

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again –  the language that we use matters. It matters, because through our use of language we convey messages of importance or unimportance, of trust or distrust. Our choice of words conveys more than the simple message we intend to send.

When we talk about our employees or managers as “they”, we differentiate ourselves from them as leaders. “We” think about things one way, but “they” think about it another.  Indeed much of the language that we use in our corporate worlds creates barriers and boundaries that need not necessarily exist. It is the manifestation of an underlying fragmentation in the culture of most organisations.

Let’s take a simple example:

“I have to deal with all these stupid requests from employees, because their managers can’t be bothered”

Whilst the words aren’t exact, this is the kind of phrase I’ve heard throughout my career – and have probably muttered once or twice in the past too!

“I’m helping to find answers to employee problems and support their managers in running their teams”

OK, so I appreciate talking this way sounds and feels a little unnatural – but why? Why should it feel any more unnatural than the first?

Then let’s think about the impact to others of thinking and talking in this way. If your belief system was based on this second statement, how would you think and act differently and what would others see of you in your role? Would you be part of something bigger, or fragmenting yourself into something more isolated?

Choosing our language carefully, every day and in every situation not only changes the way that others perceive us, but it can also start to change the way we think and perform. Our language carries much more importance internally to our belief system and externally to our ecosystem than we sometimes give it credit for.

That’s why language, and the way we use it, really does matter.

Raw belief, raw talent

Bloggers have a habit of seeing something in life and trying to draw parallels with the world of work, or whatever topic they choose to blog about. I know, I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt, bought the t-shirt company. I’m going to try to avoid that. But being half cut on Night Nurse and paracetamol, who knows….anything could happen.

Last year, after final school reports, I was walking with my daughter in the Ardeche. She had done really well that year, but maths remained an issue for her. Half confidence, half ability. She struggled to perform to the level of her natural intellectual ability. We were hiking a particularly arduous 12 mile route and to keep her mind off the hills, we talked about school and subjects and basically anything to prevent the “are we there yet” syndrome kicking in.

When we got to maths, she was, as usual, self-effacing, honest and humble. “I just don’t understand it” she told me.  “You can understand anything”, I replied rather tritely. “I bet by this time next year, if you really want to, you can be on the top table”. She looked at me and said, “I can’t. I’m not good enough”.

“I can’t do it for you” I replied, “but if you really want it, if you think you can, if you tried hard and if I help you, you will.”

The conversation continued and fast forward 7 months and I am sat in the classroom with her teacher. We start talking about maths and she tells me how she has seen an incredible improvement in my daughter. From being in the bottom group, she is now in the second to top. She explains that she is out performing her ability, because of her desire to learn, to do well and to succeed. “It is truly incredible” she tells me.

So what happened? Well, some of it is about the right moment. Some of it is about the right support. Some of it is about maturity. But as my daughter said to me this evening, “well we said that was what was going to happen”. Some of it was about having a vision of success and the sense of belief that comes from other people sharing that vision.  There was no intellectual or physical reason why she could not achieve this, but there was a psychological block.

Would I have spent the same amount of time and effort with one of my team? With an employee? Probably not and this is a salutary lesson that I need to reflect on a little more. If we are set on getting people to perform to their potential, sometimes that goes beyond training, sometimes it goes beyond structures and job profiles. And it definitely goes beyond the nonsense that is talked about the war for talent, talent communities, talent pipelining etc. etc.

Most of the time, the raw talent is sat just in front of you. With a little bit of personal investment, a bit of belief and, of course, with the right support and instruction. Well, most things are possible. You just need to approach it with the passion and dedication that you would with someone you love.

Time consuming? Yes. A waste of time? No.

And I’ll leave the last word to my daughter, “Well, I’m pleased…….but I’m not on the top table yet. But I have another four months to go…..and I will be there. Because I can.”

UPDATE: The results are in and she has gained four levels this year, from being one behind target to three above. Now that, my friends, is DATA.