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February 20, 2019

Mind your language in the workplace

People busy on computers.
People busy on computers.

Have you ever listened to the language people use in the workplace? It’s more important than many organisations think. For example, addressing a group as ‘team’ is often a sign of self-delusion. If the group truly were a team, you wouldn’t need to say it. And if teamwork is not their forte, calling them ‘team’ ends up being an ironic statement.

Edgar Schein was a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. His theory of organisational culture identified three distinct aspects: artifacts and behaviours, espoused values and assumptions. Within this, artifacts include any tangible, overt or verbally identifiable elements in an organisation. Architecture, furniture, dress code, and office jokes are all organisational artifacts. They are the visible elements in a culture and they can be recognised by people not part of the culture. One of the best places to see artefactual congruity is the office of a senior government official in our region. These spaces are almost uniformly panelled in dark wood, with heavy desks and defeated sofas. Policed by large ladies who themselves appear carved from mahogany, the mood created is ….brown. And in these brown organisational spaces the language is also heavy and ponderous. Usually delivered in a half-whisper that imposes reverence and also makes it harder for you to understand what is going on. This is then deliberately contrasted with the loud vocal presence of the senior official and his immediate entourage. So in artefactual terms, the office of the senior official blends décor, visible behaviour and language to create an impression of power.

Business now aspires to brighter, lighter offices that are more open and encourage the free flow of people and conversations. This is a good thing. But it won’t deliver on expectation unless the culture that inhabits it is similarly open, bright and positive. Shaping the language is a good way to make progress on this front. Every organisation needs its own glossary so that all participants can describe things in the same way. And from a brand perspective, it helps to create descriptive terms that are unique to the organisation.

None of this requires the use of jargon or acronyms: on balance they are barriers to understanding. Nor does it require the thoughtless use of management language imported from other cultures.

Thinking back to the Independence period, most African nations were united by the use of motivational language all their own. The Harambees, the Nyayos, the Umojas. Isn’t it time for our modern societies and businesses to develop their own motivational language?


Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.
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