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