The Crucial Role Of Language In Shifting And Shaping Culture
Culture is obviously an oft-used word in the people and culture space. A vague-ish term used to describe a fuzzy set of shared attitudes, beliefs, rituals, conventions, norms, assumptions and values. All of which influence people’s behaviour, the way people interpret other’s behaviour and, as a result, the way everyone interacts.
Language is essential in expressing these elements. It encodes the schemas, categories and metaphors that help us make sense of the world. For this reason, language, culture and worldview are woven together, inseparable, each influencing the other. And in turn, influencing the way the world sees us.
Many of the business blunders and public gaffes we hear in the news can be traced back to language.
Enron’s excesses were no surprise considering the typical language used by traders: ‘we’re an aggressive culture’ and ‘money is the only thing that motivates’. It wasn’t a case of a few folk who went rogue; their shared language sent strong cultural cues about what was considered appropriate behaviour.
More recently, Uber has been beset by accusations of a competitive culture with a blind eye turned towards the misbehaviour of high achievers. Maybe they shouldn’t ‘always be hustlin’? Perhaps Nike continues to lead their market, with fewer allegations, because they ‘simplify and go’ and ‘evolve immediately’? These maxims filter through every strategic decision and crucial conversation.
Next opportunity, open some emails, eavesdrop a few conversations, and observe how people are communicating in your workplace. This is the shared language of your organisation. One that didn’t come straight from a manual — it evolved organically.
It’s a language wrought from the stories; the mantras and maxims; the values, vision and mission; the technical jargon. It flows through conversations, presentations, policies, and the intranet. It filters into everyday lexicon and is woven into the cultural tapestry.
Words set cultural permissions which are adopted as behaviours. Is the language one of aggression and competition (‘take no prisoners!’), or is it inclusive and caring (‘our people come first!’)? Words seep insidiously into culture, changing the way people think and act, and changing customers’ and employees’ experiences.
Language dictates which words are used, and how frequently. These inclusions become subconscious over time, yet they continue to focus attention. By forcing us to remain constantly aware of, and thinking about specific subjects, performance inevitably improves. Is it a language focused on quality, service or innovation? Is safety woven through the language, keeping it front of mind? Or does it celebrate the collective to improve collaboration?
Are acronyms and jargon increasing the speed and efficiency of communication, or are they causing confusion? If so, should specialised language be eliminated? Or, by ensuring everyone in the organisation understands technical terms that are indecipherable to outsiders, could it foster a strong sense of belonging?
The way language divides broad concepts into specific categories affects the way we think about them. Putting things into the same category makes us think of them as similar; placing them into different categories forces us to see them as unique. Categories often carry associations and stigmas that are difficult to break.
Organisations are sliced up in all manner of ways: departments, functions, roles and positions. We delineate friends, colleagues, bosses, customers and contractors. We categorise work as ‘work’ and everything else as ‘life’.
But what if we didn’t? Or what if they were different? What could work look like with different categories, fewer categories or no categories at all?
Metaphors influence the way we think about certain concepts by connecting them to others. They provide an insight into our cultural values and the way we see the world.
‘Time is money’ suggests time is a commodity that can be saved, spent, squandered or invested. For a business focused on producing products as quickly and efficiently as possible, this metaphor serves them well. However, for a company attempting to prioritise quality, safety or service, the metaphor undermines their aspirations. When the focus shifts from efficiency to quality, time isn’t a cost, it’s a necessary investment, and a more relevant metaphor is needed.
Leaders play an important role in guiding the shared language. ‘Guiding’, because it can’t be completely controlled or regulated; it’s influenced by everyone who belongs to the culture. It can’t be forced, it needs to flow naturally through daily conversation. People have to want to use it. They need to believe what they’re saying.
The best leaders can do is set the tone that echoes through their workplaces. The challenge is cultivating a shared language that considers inherent differences. The front line will never express things the same way as exec. Legal will always have jargon that’s indecipherable to other departments. There’s no single way of saying things that works for everyone. However, if the language becomes siloed, it’s likely the culture will be fragmented too.
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