THE POWER OF WORDS

Language is powerful. Consciously or unconsciously, words convey and create powerful, evocative, emotional and lasting images both from the perspective of the user and the receiver.

Over time, most organizations and their managers develop their own particular language to describe their business, products, employees, daily work practices, culture, competition, and customers. This language consists of words, phrases, and concepts that convey descriptions and images that become so much a common element of daily parlance in an organization, that we hardly even recognize them as an habitual means of expression.

New employees — managers and non-managers alike — pick up these words and turns of phrase almost unconsciously and many hardly ever stop to dwell on the actual images they convey concerning the people or things they are meant to describe. They are simply the way folks talk around here.

In many regards, this natural practice of collective humans in a defined organizational context is relatively harmless. But in some ways, it is not. For this reason, I believe it is a wise practice for managers, concerned with the nature of their organizational culture, to occasionally examine the descriptors and images they commonly use and the real meanings – intended or unintended – they potentially convey.

Ask yourself, for example, is it common in your organization to hear the pronouns I, me, my, and mine, rather than us, we and our. In most organizations, it reveals a great deal. I, me, my, and mine convey a focus on individuals, possessiveness, and who owns what – my people, my deputy, my subordinates, my unit, my resources. The implication is generally “hands off”. Us, we and our, conveys a collective focus and a sense of sharing responsibility, people, and things. If your organization preaches and is serious about teamwork, corporate thinking and shared responsibility, which pronouns should you hear most often?

Similarly, pay close attention to the words and phrases used to describe your competitors, customers, internal units other than your own, top management, management in general, and especially poor performers and under-achievers. Are these descriptions and the images they conjure up reasonable, respectful, logical and, accurate, or derogatory, demeaning, and disrespectful? Throughout my career I often heard it opined publicly as fact by some fellow managers “that 10% of the workforce does 90% of the good work”. Not only is this almost universally untrue but its dismissive quality regarding the other 90% makes you wonder about the bad management that must have occurred to reduce so many of the “best and brightest” organizations usually claim they hire to the level of chronic under-performers.

Since most organizations make a clear distinction between the professionals who work in core business or mission areas and those employees who work in the enabling support infrastructure, pay attention to how one group describes the other. Do these descriptions convey a sense of recognition of the contribution to goals and business success each group provides — large or small — or do they convey a sense of class distinction and unequal importance and value?  Talk especially to the support professionals, they have keen ears and long memories.

When an organization routinely refers to its employees at any level as “resources” – highly valued or not — they are semantically relegated to the level of tables, computers, money, pens, paper, and training opportunities. Better that employees be seen as those who do the organization’s work and in whom managers must invest organizational resources — especially their time — to help them be the best they can be.

I repeat, language is powerful and can work either in support of management goals or to their detriment. Negative, inappropriate, disrespectful, dismissive, and counterproductive modes of expression can be changed and eliminated but only if managers collectively are willing to occasionally examine these critical elements of their daily communications and determine to eradicate the undesirables they find.

2 comments

  1. This is an important issue and bears managers taking action to review discriptive words and pronouns. Great advice rarely given!

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