Stuff and nonsense

I’ve written before about why language matters and the power of language in our workplaces, but more broadly it also matters in how seriously people think organisations are about solving the issues that matter to them. When we spout corporate nonsense about work and working lives it not only makes us sound vacuous, but more importantly it makes us sound like we don’t care. Our focus should be on making work better for all and yet our debate so often focuses on the few, because there are more soundbites to be had from fads than there are from the real work that we need to address.

So in the spirit of trying to move us on, here are some of the phrases that we need to send to the management speak Room 101.

New normal – Where to start on this one? Normally uttered by people who are trying to make a sweeping generalisation without any data or evidence and therefore needing to convince their audience that it is obvious and doesn’t need proving. And at the same time entirely alienating to people who don’t recognise the assertion, because clearly they’re not normal…

The future is now – No. It isn’t. The king of vacuous statements. Both linguistically stupid and failing to grasp the base concept of time. Anyone who says this should take a trip back to primary school to learn what it means when the big hand is on the twelve an the little hand is on the three.

Any phrase that includes “employees/job seekers won’t accept…” – Normally referring to highly privileged office workers based in London and the Home Counties and why any employer that doesn’t offer complementary Hygge and star fruit is out of touch. Have you seen the conditions that the delivery drivers that bring you your chai latte are working in?

The Great Resignation – Or indeed any “thing” that becomes quoted more than researched or thought through. Disruption was another one, remember that? Anyone want to be disrupted any more after the last two years? No I thought not. And when it comes to the Great Resignation, just jog on.

The serious point here, is that every hour spent talking about topics that really don’t matter is an hour that we aren’t discussing the real issues in organisations and the labour market. Insecure work, low paid jobs, discrimination, bullying and crap corporate cultures. Those are things that we should be spending sensible, reflective, thoughtful time on, not the guff and nonsense that matters little or not at all. Far be it from me to call it out but if we want to properly change work and society, the debate around it needs a paradigm shift.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.

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.

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.