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
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
-excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking”
I don’t know if this first blog entry is best described as a personal admission, professional rant, or a cry for workplace sanity. Maybe this is the winter of my discontent. Or my Jerry Maguire moment—you know, that dawning crisis of conscience written and distributed in the form of a “memo” asserting that something about the way we are working is seriously out of whack. In the movie, Jerry left the office after that memo’s clarion call (and his quick, decisive dismissal by the company) with a single goldfish and single follower.
What the hell. I haven’t had a goldfish since I won one in the 5th grade Catholic Halloween carnival. And I just quit my job in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime, so I can’t be fired anyway.
So I am calling for a radical shift—a return to a way or working that actually acknowledges that the “workforce” comprises real human beings who are finite in their time and energy, have friends and family who miss their attention, and who are desperately in need of a long winter’s nap with their cell phones set to ‘silent.’
As many corporations and flailing small businesses alike declare “work/life balance” as a core value, they simultaneously commit to business performance targets and “stretch” productivity metrics that are fundamentally incompatible with the former. And when last quarter’s profit margin competes with employee engagement scores for the greatest gains, you can be sure the one with dollar signs in front will win.
Admittedly, I am currently relying mostly on my qualitative observations as a facilitator and organization development consultant. But my instincts are bearing out in the research that shows a negative correlation between profitability, customer satisfaction and overall job satisfaction among employees. The Gallup organization has found that “actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process.” Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. Now check out this math from Towers Perrin findings: 72 percent of companies have reduced their workforces in response to the recession, while the number of “actively disengaged” workers has risen to as much as 24 percent in companies where layoffs have occurred.
At a time when most of the drones in the corporate hive just want to understand the basics of what-why-how-and when, too often the executive buzz—that deafening, deadening hum of business-speak—continues to numb their neurons to any sense of hope or clarity. Questions posed from the hive often seem reasonable enough: “Why is it that we (read mega-company) just had record 3d quarter earnings, yet we’re still laying off people?”. Yet the answers seem less than transparent (read spin).
Here is a tiny sample of what I am hearing:
Employee (Plain English) translated into CEO (Corporate Executive Obfuscation)
“I’m completely exhausted and past my limits.” CEO translation: “We are hearing about ‘capacity management’ issues.”
“I hear there is another round of layoffs coming.” CEO translation: “We will continue to evolve our structure in the coming months.”
“There is no way we can get all this done with fewer people.” CEO translation:“Our resourcing plan is aspirational at this point.”
“I’m screwed.” CEO translation: “We encourage you to carry our vacation forward into next year in response to our new stretch targets.”
It seems to that colony collapse disorder is occurring not only in bee communities but in corporate ones as well.
In the movie of Anna Quindlen’s poignant novel, One True Thing, a cancer-stricken mother confides to her daughter as they stroll their neighborhood streets decorated for the holidays, “I believe more is more.” Counter to that often-invoked call for simplicity, “Less is more,” she contentedly admits that when it comes to Christmastime, more gold, more tinsel, more glitter is better.
Let’s try a third variation. Call me the anti-elf, but when it comes to current workplace norms, I hereby proclaim “Less is less!” Trying to achieve goals that are beyond stretch (they are break), more complex , and have shorter timeframes (next week) with fewer resources (slashed budgets and lower headcount, which means people) is a low-probability endeavor. “Load upon load of apples…. One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine.” Yet too few executives are poets with troubled sleep.
Awaken! There are plenty of goals that should be abandoned, jettisoned, or time capsuled because they are unrealistic within the current economy and prevailing corporate cultures. Send some to the cider-apple heap. Then decide what will truly set your company apart (“customer focus”? I don’t think so) and distill your priorities down to the essence of excellence to better inspire your people, capture your customers, and save us all from the unrelentingly frenzied pace and tsunami of techno-communication in which we are drowning.
So, leaders, heal thyself and LEAD (acronyms are de rigeur to get attention):
Limit priorities to the few that matter most—ABANDON others—and see what happens to focus and results
Empathize with employees’ workload and confusion (wild idea: sit in their chairs, attend their endless teleconferences, and read their bursting Inboxes for a day)—and see what happens to trust, teamwork, and retention
Allow employees time for reflection as part of their job—and see what happens to critical thinking and innovation
Declare “less is less” as a company commitment to realistic goals—and see what happens to motivation, engagement, and productivity, and perceived leadership credibility
I hereby join Jon Stewart in a call to restore sanity, not only to politics, but to the corporate workplace, where real humans spend most of their days and too many nights.
Is there a goldfish in need of a home out there anywhere? Anyone willing to follow me? I’d like to hear from you—whether it is a rant, recommendation, or story of what’s really working or decidedly not working out there.
As a business leader, what are you doing to reclaim your workplace for real human beings? As an employee, what are you doing that is bringing out your best at work, without sacrificing your health or values?