Does language create reality? If so, leaders might want to examine the level of “business speak” they use and its impact on employee engagement.
Here’s what I mean. Certainly business rhetoric is no stranger to the kind of spin perfected by politicos and the military. We’ve all heard of “downsizing” and “outsourcing”—code words that mean people are losing their jobs. But now even the language used to describe those who do have jobs has become increasingly dehumanizing.
Let’s look at this sad linguistic trajectory. Back in the 1950s, employees were known as “personnel.” That term gave way to “human resources,” which made people sound more like oil in the pipeline than real human beings. Now current usage is shifting to “human capital.” The definition of “capital” is an “input in the production function.” So all those who are working more and more for less and less have been further reduced to “inputs” in a diminishing “headcount.”
Today we have, on the one hand, employees as “inputs,” but on the other hand, leaders who regularly admonish them to “take ownership,” and above all, “add value.” If you felt like a job description with legs, would you really care about adding value?
No doubt it is easier to “reduce positions” than to lay people off. But let’s face it—and research bears this out—trust in business leaders is at an all-time low. Many companies are showing historically poor engagement scores among employees, which means that too many people aren’t giving it their all. Business speak would describe this as a woeful lack of “discretionary performance.”
The language of business has also infected medicine. Doctors Hartzband and Groopman, in a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine note: “The term ‘provider’ has a deliberate sterility to it that wrings out any sense of humanity, and connotes a widget-like framework for that which is being ‘provided.’ It makes us feel like a vending machine pushing out hermetically sealed bags of “health care” after the “consumer’s” dollar bill is slurped eerily in.”1 A growing power struggle can be seen in physicians’ framing of nurse practitioners as “physician extenders. ” If you were stripped of the title you earned and referred to as an appendage of someone being paid more than you for much of the same work, would you be more or less inclined to “take ownership” of your work?
We know that the best leaders inspire people with their ideas and vision. Obscuring those ideas by describing the current “value proposition” just flat lines the motivation of those listening.
What if the “value proposition” became a charge to leaders to actively value their employees? That would begin with being mindful of the words we choose to use for those “assets” formerly known as the people who work with us. Consider starting simple: use plain but passionate language to explain what needs to happen next and why. Thinking of employees as real, whole people instead of “increasingly limited resources” would help, too.
What if the “C” in C-Suite stood first and foremost for “Connection?” A few companies seem to have embraced this concept. Instead of Human Resources, Southwest Airlines has a People Department and Google has People Operations. Their leaders talk to their “people,” not their “human capital.” And as a result, their employee retention, engagement, and yes, their customer satisfaction and profits are enviable.
If words create, or at least reinforce, reality, let’s choose some different words for people in the workplace. Toss the opaque buzz words of business and see what happens to engagement.
1 Pamela Hartzband, M.D., and Jerome Groopman, M.D. “The New Language of Medicine.”
N Engl J Med 2011; 365:1372-1373October 13, 2011DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1107278
My father was a “yellow dog” Democrat, and in keeping with his legacy I have long believed politics are important, and that voting actually matters. But the political shenanigans demonstrated by our Congress in response to the recent debt ceiling debate left me not just angry, not just embarrassed or afraid. They left me in despair. Me, the kid who wore a patch on my jeans in 1968 that proclaimed: “Nixon has a secret plan to end the war. He’s going to vote for McGovern.” After the euphoria of seeing Obama sweep into office, igniting such hope and inspiration, how could we be here in just two years? Squabbling our way to the brink of economic paralysis? For the first time in my life, I felt my political faith defeated. I would not bother to vote again. Washington is broken and will never fundamentally change. If these are our leaders, then heaven help us.
So I did what I have often done in moments of despair. I ran away to the movies. In the dark of a theater in Myrtle Beach, SC, I watched The Help. I’d read the book but seeing and feeling the genuine risks that one young, white aspiring writer and a few black maids took to tell what it was really like to work in those Mississippi households during the Jim Crow era was riveting. But even more powerful was being in an audience of mixed blacks and whites laughing and clapping together—in South Carolina, of all places—as the story unfolded onscreen. In fact, given my childhood summers visiting this same beach, I once never would have believed it would be possible.
You see, when we went on vacation fifty years ago, we went to a stately old Southern beach hotel where you had to dress for dinner and all the servers were black and wore crisp uniforms, and the maitre’d hands sported white gloves, with which he smoothly pulled out the chairs to seat the ladies. I remember their names, their faces, and their duties as clearly as if I being led to the table right now. Cleo served the bread in a special silver bun warmer and served the roll you picked with tongs. She always had a floral handkerchief in her breast pocket that made her stand out and seem so friendly. Riley, the elegant maître’d, looked like a black Alfred Hitchcock, rotund, formal, and searingly articulate, and the only one of the dining room help that wore a black jacket instead of a white one. One waiter would be assigned to serve our family for the entire week, and we jittered with excitement to see who it would be this year: Daniel (also known as “Lamb”), Joseph (who stuttered), or Jesse (who once raised a fist in anger and was quickly quieted and led away to the kitchen)?
My grandfather, beloved but bigoted, never said their names, but rather raised a finger as he held a toothpick between his teeth to summon their attention.
I didn’t know how wrong it all was then and never pictured any other way being possible.
Yet those racial lines have largely evaporated in my lifetime. Perhaps I sat just a row behind Cleo’s granddaughter in that theater yesterday, cheering for those maids to hold their heads up and tell Miss Hilly where to go.
In fifty years it had all changed and for much the better. If we can manage to uproot the worst of institutionalized racism, then surely we can wrangle our way towards a government that truly serves instead of shames us. We did before.
So change is possible. Perhaps if our leaders could engage their genuine curiosity, compassion, and courage, instead of just tactics—compromise, coercion, and cacaphony—we would see some progress on the red vs. blue front. It seemed to work when black vs. white were the charged colors in America. I believe I’ll vote in the next election after all.