Whats in a word The power of language for improving organisational culture
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What’s in a word – The power of language for improving organisational culture

What’s in a word?

The power of language as a catalyst for improving not only company culture but the bottom-line performance of business is frequently overlooked. But, when it accounts for the vast majority of our communication, isn’t it time we started thinking before we speak?

A huge amount of effort and resources spent on reworking business process doesn’t deliver the promised results because it doesn’t address the culture that sits around it. Among other things, culture is made up of all the small conversations we have on a day-to-day basis but as businesses we often fail to look at this language element when we’re trying to effect change. But when you compare it to modifying human behaviours and values, language is relatively easy to change and can have an immediate impact.

Most people learn contextually- specific patterns of language to use in certain situations. If you think of a sports star with a microphone thrust in front of them, it’s a classic situation when a person might fall into patterns of words and sentences and end up sounding uninteresting and clichéd.

If an organisation promotes success by encouraging people to talk about problems and their solutions, then everybody learns that pattern of language and it forms a culture oriented towards problem resolution.

What we’re trying to do is unpick negative patterns of language and give people new words, phrases and contexts to make their use of language more effective.

The preferred styles for most leaders are what we call advocacy or advisory types of language. These are what you’d expect from senior business people, but both of these styles suggest answers and are not particularly useful if you want to stimulate and encourage people to explore everyday problems.

I recently worked with the leadership team of an automotive plant in Eastern Europe who couldn’t work out why many of the talented people they’d employed didn’t contribute much to the organisation and why their process improvement work had stalled. Their collective psychometric testing indicated a group preference for probing language that almost reached the point of interrogation when the situation was stressful.

After six months of coaching, they had quadrupled the amount of time that their conversations used open questions with an exploratory voice and it had quite a profound effect on company culture and process improvement. Staff felt that they could contribute a lot more and were confident that their voices would be heard, and the management team reported lower levels of stress.

Another interesting example was a senior director who was struggling to control a complex engineering programme, which kept over-running. Through the testing we realised he couldn’t recognise situations where he should use admonishment to control and direct and, as a result, was unable to hold his subordinates accountable for their failure to meet deadlines.

Through coaching, he went through a classic change experience and struggled with confidence for a while, but came out the other side able to assert himself fairly and effectively without appearing to overplay his hand.

Most people want to be more effective at work but often they don’t see language as a barrier to them achieving this. Our experience shows there are some subtle changes they can make to enable them to read and respond to situations more effectively. That can be very empowering for the individual and positive for the organisation.

Robin Jaques will be presenting a workshop in February 2014 titled Accelerating Business Performance – How to create a culture of Business Improvement. Find out more.

This article first appeared in the HSBS Summer edition of Corporate World.

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