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
I imagine that by now you too have encountered companies that proclaim to be “going green” in some way. “Green” takes a lot of forms: being environmentally conscious by promoting recycling, reducing emissions, measuring your “footprint,” or relying on sustainably farmed food products.
As a frequent flyer, I see hotels increasingly proclaim a commitment to conservation as well. Here’s an example of a bedside placard at one of my favorites:
“This hotel and its employees are committed to helping protect the environment. To help us reduce water and energy consumption, please consider not having your sheets laundered during your multiple night stay. If you prefer to reuse your towels, please hang them up. Towels left on the floor will be refreshed.”
OK, so I get the program. I dutifully hang up my towels and leave my placard on the bed.
But when I return, it is clear that my all my towels are fresh ones. Hmmm… So I hang them up again the next day. Same fresh towels appear.
“Perhaps I am confused,” I think. So upon checkouot I mention my experience to the hotel manager, who looks like he has no idea what I am talking about, shrugs, and says, “I’ll look into that.”
On the next visit—actually the next three visits—the towels were again freshened when I hung them up.
Why? I can come up with a few reasons:
1) The housekeeping staff has not been effectively trained on the procedure.
2) Some of the housekeeping staff change the towels anyway in the hopes of a better tip.
3) The manager and/or company have not communicated or reinforced the importance of this procedure.
4) The manager and/or company isn’t really committed to protecting the environment. The placards are just a gesture and make them look good.
This last hypothesis is the one, above all, that this hotel should hope I don’t come to believe. Because I stay there—a lot—and now I am doubtful and annoyed about the disconnect between their purported values and the actual behavior I am seeing.
It’s that easy to create uncertainty about company values. Fresh towels can go from an expected amenity to a symbol of eco-fraud.
So where are your company’s “towels”?
In what way does your organization proclaim its values and not really follow through?
Is there a gap between aspiration and execution where you work?
Most likely there is. The distance between vision and reality, commitment and consistency can be miles.
What can you do?
• Have a clear picture of what you want to happen and communicate that.
• Train people on how to participate in creating that picture.
• Reward and reinforce them when they do the right things right.
• Take action—the first time– when you hear about an issue. Don’t wait to confirm a trend.
• Proactively look for gaps and flag them for correction.
• Measure the impacts—positive or negative—and communicate them.
These actions are simple to describe, but very hard to do well.
My hotel sends a follow-up survey each time I stay. I continue to mention the towels issue. And I’m still unbearably fresh. My clients are probably grateful for my hygiene, but personally, I’m disappointed in the hotel.
As Kermit the Frog lamented, “It’s not easy being green.”
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.
The movie trailer for the newly-released film, The Company Men, has the following tag line: “In America, we give our lives to our jobs…” It succinctly sums up a key aspect of the prevailing American culture—our attitude towards work, and its centrality in shaping our choices.
Organizations, too, have cultures that make them more or less desirable places to spend our time. But what is “organizational culture”? Simply defined, it is “the way we do things around here.” While company values, policies, and goals are widely communicated, its culture is rarely captured in any formal way but is widely understood among those in it. As one wag said, “I don’t know what fish think about, but it sure isn’t water.” It’s not part of the environment. It is the environment.
Organization culture breathes in a world of stated and implied expectations and norms. For example: we respond to e-mail early, late, and over the weekend, we take conference calls in the evening during family time, or we change vacation plans according to unforeseen business needs. It can mean wearing a suit or never wearing one. The culture may support “cube farms” or open work spaces, support or forbid skateboards and dogs at work, reward team effort or rogue individualism. Culture can fuel or blunt innovation. As management guru Peter Drucker has concluded about its power: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
One thing I know for sure (to borrow the name of Oprah’s monthly column), organizational culture is really difficult to change. Nor does it happen quickly. The most helpful thing I was ever told on the subject is this: expect culture change to happen “like water on rock.” Drip, drip. Slow erosion of old forms—particularly in the case of long-established companies or institutions. Yet it is so often those corporate giants that decide their culture needs to change, and by the way, let’s hit that objective by the end of the year. Younger companies are less encumbered by the weight of their own history and tendencies. Take the young airline JetBlue, for example, which is intentionally building a value-based culture, instead of having to rebuild one that has grown warped.
So this got me to thinking about geology and water erosion. Here are a few facts about the physics of “water on rock” that could prove to hold lessons for organizations, large and small, seeking to change their culture.
Lesson #1: Water always flows from high terrain downward, towards lower terrain. This is why rivers carve valleys.
In organizations, the high terrain is the C-suite (AKA Chief Executive Whoevers). Are the leaders in the organization just declaring the need for culture change or designing and investing in systemic changes? Yes, Virginia, there is a culture and “it” comprises systems and sanctions, processes and people, rules and rewards. Think of it like sedimentary rock—fused layers, all of which must be worn away to erode, reshape, and free it to become something else. These layers have to shift and align to a new way of thinking and doing to realize and reinforce true culture change.
Are leaders participating in culture change (what do I need to do differently?) or delegating it as a strategic intention and waiting for results as observers from the high terrain? Here’s an example: I recently heard that an executive in a recently merged Fortune 100 company wondered with exasperation why the culture change scores weren’t better yet (within the first year), while at the same time not knowing who was responsible for training its supervisors. A counter example? Ann Rhoades, architect of Jet Blue’s corporate culture, has successfully employed a critical equation: Leadership drives values, values drive behavior, behaviors define culture, and culture determines performance.
Leaders who seek culture change need to get their suits wet, feel the current, and start swimming in the realities (JetBlue’s CEO David Barger is also a crew member, helping with food service and cleaning the aircraft when he flies). They must be able to speak from the heart about why it needs to change because they have listened to not only their business analysts but their frontline employees. And then commit to the time and resources it will take.
Lesson #2: Raindrops (especially in dry environments) create splash erosion that moves tiny particles of soil.
So if you are frustrated waiting for the headwaters to make their way downstream, start by making a splash. Whether you are an employee, team leader, or manager, take a risk. Risk = splash.
Ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I defy (with even the smallest gesture) the way we do things around here?” Then test your hypothesis and notice what happens. Were you applauded openly or underground, discouraged, or met with passive-aggressive humor? In any case, you will have discovered something critical about risk tolerance in your culture. Your team may be less rigid than the overall culture. And who knows, those watching may just start to do their own rain dance.
Lesson #3: The faster water moves in streams the larger objects it can pick up and transport. This is known as critical erosion velocity.
A few starter ideas:
Share the splash impact—real-life stories of culture change occurring in teams or small units widely. Virally. Give the soil particles hope of movement. Lots of rivulets converge as streams.
Create a survival narrative. The need for culture change usually means there is big trouble. In other words, unless we can create a raging river torrent to reach the arid plan, people and animals could starve.
Make sure people get in the boat before you head downstream. There is usually plenty of talk about buy-in and catchphrases created to generate excitement (“All Fired Up!”—oh please). While processes and systems must be revamped to drive culture change, the people who have to adapt and use them better be onboard. Research from the Forum Corporation’s identifies three key people factors that drive speed: Clarity, unity, and agility.
Of course, companies want to speed up culture change, which is usually linked to gaining competitive advantage. But be careful out there, most of those who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel died. If you’re going to go fast and furious, be ready for the ride, and the results. Or cultivate some patience.
Me? I’m going outside to check for signs of rain.