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.

In praise of spin

I’ve worked in HR long enough to know that it has an image problem. One that is generally unfair, but probably the result of our own endeavours.

Our knee jerk reaction, like anyone in this scenario, is to tell everyone they’re wrong. That actually they’re missing this whole bunch of important information that they’ve never consider before.

It’s all……a bit whiny.

We whinge and bitch and moan about how we are misunderstood. And all it does is make us look like a whiny, moaning, bitching bunch of people. Let’s face it, would you want to hang around with someone coming across like that?

We don’t work enough on presentation, on delivery, on PR and, yes, on spin. I don’t care what you think, if you believe in the product that you have enough, you should be willing to take any measures necessary to get it delivered.

Rather than being the organisational equivalent of the parent telling their unenthused kids to, “eat their greens” and reminding them they won’t grow or be healthy otherwise, we need to learn to plate up something equally nourishing but more palatable and exciting.

We need to think about the hooks, the positioning, the language, the packaging and the delivery. We need to create excitement and interest in the topics that people have become weary, wary and immune too.

Time and time again I hear of people telling me that their business, their CEO, their leadership team aren’t interested in HR. That’s a total crock. If you speak to any CEO or leader, they will talk about all the things that we are trying to achieve. They just aren’t interested in us or the way that we talk about it.

We all know the famous quote about insanity being the act of doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Sometime we border on the insane as a profession.

We’re full of creative, thoughtful, innovative people. We’re full of people that want to make a difference, that want to help organisations be better, perform better and grow. We’re full of people who care.

So instead of shying away from the dark arts, let’s embrace them. We can reinvent ourselves and our work, but in order to do that we need to think as much about position, delivery and narrative as we do about content, process and structure.

People consume a package, they don’t always want to consume a principle.

Language matters

People at work will often tell me that, “words are important”. I agree, I think language is important and the power of it is underused in a work context. For some reason, the moment we enter the workplace we seem to lose all sense of the human vocabulary that we would normally use to interact with people and develop an entirely different language.

It sucks.

But that’s not really today’s point, I could write diatribe after diatribe on the stupidity of business speak – but neither you nor I have time. No, what really annoys me is the passive dominant language that people use;

“I know you’re on holiday, but” 

I know you’re on holiday, but my issue is more important than your relaxation time….


I am going to assert that whatever piece of nonsense I am propogating is actually something that you would want to read. You cannot possibly have chosen not to read it….


I think this information is important, I don’t give a shit what you think….

I could go on.

Next time you’re talking to someone, writing to someone, thinking of using any words for any purpose, try to think about the reader. Try for once not to write for yourself, think about yourself or your need. Think about the individual, what do they need, want, desire?

If what you’re writing is interesting, useful and helpful enough, the reader will come to you. And for the love of God. Please stop with the passive dominant phrases.

Ripping up the writing rules

As human beings we’re conditioned to use “appropriate” language depending on our setting. In the bar, in a shop, when we bump in to someone on the street and, of course, in the workplace. We choose the way in which we speak, the way in which we interact based not on our conscious decisions, but instead on the way in which society has shaped us.

Similarly, our reaction to the language of others is also conditioned by our expectations of situational appropriateness. When something does meet with these expectations, we take note. Sometimes, with shock, surprise and maybe even joy.

If we want to create more human, more humane workforces, we must never forget the power of the words we use. We need to remember that we are conditioned to write, to talk to employees, to present ourselves in certain ways. There is no rule book, no code of conduct that exists that tells us we need to talk in this way. It’s just years and years of conditioning.

See what I mean:

“We are committed to being a flexible employer as a method of helping us to retain valued employees. We recognise that there may be times when you wish to take an extended period of absence in order to pursue personal interests or domestic duties such as caring for a family member.”


“We recognise the potential in all of our employees and that talent exists throughout the organisation. Analysis has already taken place across the organisation to map out current activities that support talent management and to identify strengths,weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”

And my personal favourite,

“Here at xxxx our ambition is to create the best environment for all our colleagues to reach their full potential. In doing so, we build the culture, capability and capacity to help the business meet its multichannel growth ambitions.

We are facilitating a simple, honest and human culture that is inclusive, collaborative and connected. Ensuring we work with the right structures and processes, to enable flexibility and a culture that values individual contribution, builds teams and minimises risk for xxx.”

Who actually talks like this? I doubt the author of any of these pieces would ever actually speak this way, yet when they put their work hat on, something else comes out. And the expectations of the recipients are met.

Changing how we think, how we act and how we speak is hard. We’re wired to be one thing and yet we want to be another. It takes commitment and it takes perseverance. But when we do, people are more likely to take note.

“We know sometimes you’ll need to take extra time off to deal with the things that happen in life, and that’s ok”

“We want to help you to use all of your skills and abilities at work”

“We’re trying to be the best we can be and to help you to do the same”

Here’s the challenge. As you’re writing this week, whether it is a policy, an advert, an email or announcement. Ask yourself whether you’re writing as you, or whether you’re writing as you’ve been conditioned. If it’s the latter, try switching it around. Speak like a human, not a Human Resource and see what the reaction is. You might be pleasantly surprised.