The world is home to roughly 7,000 languages. Even though there are many similarities in these languages, it reflects the culture of the people who speak them. Linguistics scholars consider language as a cultural, social, and psychological phenomenon. In addition to influencing perception, language can also affect how we perceive the world.
Business has always appreciated the power of words however, there are many words such as "innovation", "collaboration", "flexibility", and “sustainability” which are being used in consultants’ websites, blanket candidates’ CVs, and spoken by managers are not quite reflective of the actions that follow, if any.
Are these words too wooly to be truly helpful in organizations today?
According to James Houzes, and Barry Posner, the authors of the book “The Leadership Challenge”, the words we choose to use are metaphors for concepts that define attitudes and behaviors, structures, and systems. Words are powerful to the point that they can be used to build and reinforce an organization's culture.
Effective leaders use words that are reflective of their organization’s cultural intent. Language in the form of words articulated by leaders in their interaction with their team members is among the 6 essential strategies exemplary leaders use to shape the organization’s culture.
We all know that the language we use can have an impact on not only how we work, but also how we feel. Additionally, it also affects our behaviors and practices at work. To leverage language to shape or reiterate an organisation’s culture, leaders need to ensure that the language used is followed up with meaningful and relevant actions that reflect the intent of the language. For example, if leaders speak of “innovation”, they must allow their people to fail in their attempts in search for better ways to do things in the organisation. For "collaboration", leaders must promote and encourage inter-departmental projects and so on. When the actions taken are not in alignment with the language used, organisation members will not only be disillusioned, but also lose trust in their leadership. The same can happen even at the peer level within the organisaton.
Language in the form of words is vital for leadership to shape organisational culture. Without it, how else would leaders communicate their vision or what they want others to accomplish with their people?
We’ve all come to accept the language we use as reality. As such, it needs to have a purpose, supported by aligned actions to influence behaviors. It is important to remember that the words we choose can either inspire greatness or extinguish potential.