Change the words, change the culture

best friends

Maddy and her best friend being goofy in the tunnel

I’m on a personal mission to change the culture by changing the language.

As I mentioned in How to Lead with your Paint Clothes on, most of the language we’re used to using in leadership and corporate culture (and, to be frank, even in communities, churches, etc.) is based on old paradigms. Because these cultures were formed by men in a patriarchal society, we adopted language that was comfortable for them. That language is the language of sports, warfare, and the industrial revolution. (Some of you have heard me on this soap box before, I’m sure.)

Even if our work has nothing to do with these three things, and we’d be much better off building communities than teams, we still talk about competitive advantages, officers-in-charge, high performance, and targets. I’ve worked in government and non-profits where competition and production are not important, and yet we still use the same language. Even in the softer side of leadership where we’re working on personal development, we still hire “coaches” to help us. Language gets so embedded in our culture we don’t even recognize how it shapes what we do.

Last week, the university where I teach asked if I’d want to teach a social media workshop called “Using Social Media to Gain Competitive Advantage”. Well yes, I responded, I’d be happy to teach a social media workshop, BUT I’m not interested in one with that title. If I teach it, the words “competitive advantage” won’t be part of it.

In my experience, social media is about relationships and COLLABORATION, not competition. You get an advantage not by competing with other people but by building relationships with them. That’s the only way I’d know how to teach the course.

Fortunately, I work with good administration who are open to my ideas, and so they changed the title to “Tools for Social Media Visibility”. I can live with that.

It might seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but we have to start somewhere. If we want to see more feminine wisdom in our leadership, we have to walk the talk and talk the walk. Changing language CAN change culture.



Speaking a new language into the corporate world

The language of business and government is largely the language of men. It’s language that’s been shaped by sports and warfare – masculine arenas.

Think about it for a moment – strategic planning, performance reviews, bite the bullet, fast track, jump the gun, keep your eye on the prize, rally the troops, ball park figures – they’ve all been influenced by sports or warfare. Even coaching, though it has developed softer edges, is still a word that comes out of sports, where performance is everything.

Language is not only shaped by the culture in which it is formed, it also helps shape the culture. When you enter a new workplace, you learn to speak in the local lingo. Before you know it, you’re not just talking in those terms, you’re thinking in them too.

Case in point: Not long ago, in my Writing for Public Relations course, we were talking about communications strategies, and I was telling the students how important it is to evaluate after the work is complete. “Even if you don’t have time for a full-fledged evaluation,” I said, “at least do a post mortem with your planning team.”

The students wanted to know what a post mortem was, and I explained that it’s a meeting held after work has been completed to discuss what went well and what needed to be improved next time. I was so used to using the word, I didn’t even think about what I was saying, until a student raised his hand and called me on it.

“Remember how you were saying that language in the world of business is too often based on sports and warfare?” asked the student who’d spent time in the army. “Well, ‘post mortem’ is an excellent example. Interestingly enough, the army no longer uses that term. They now refer to it as ‘after action review’.”

Needless to say, I was sufficiently humbled by my student who’d caught something I didn’t even recognize in my own language. That’s how language is – it becomes so embedded in our psyche, we don’t even recognize how it influences us anymore.

I’m on a personal mission not only to change my own language, but to influence the language of the corporate world. I think it’s time for more feminine language – the language of art and intuition added to the language of sports and warfare.

This morning I delivered a speech to a local business club. I spoke on “How to Lead with your Paint Clothes On.” I talked to them about how to think more like artists, how to incorporate creativity and pauses and white spaces and practice in their business planning. I encouraged them to allow for mistakes, open themselves to possibilities, and trust their intuition. I handed out markers and doodle pages and told them to doodle while I talked. I encouraged them to hold art parties with their staff.

I don’t think the business club (mostly men) knew exactly what to make of my talk. A few of them offered stories of how creativity had shaped what they did, but most of them simply thanked me politely and then left.

It’s a new language for many people – not one that’s particularly comfortable in a business world. Speaking a new language into an old culture can be intimidating and downright scary. But change doesn’t come without a bit of risk. If we want things to shift, sometimes we have to be willing to be the oddball in the room.

Here’s the handout I used this morning. On the back of the page it said “Go ahead and DOODLE!”


Have you ever noticed how the language that’s used can change a story dramatically? The next time you read the newspaper, imagine if a few key words in the story (mostly the descriptive words) were changed slightly – would it change your perception of what happened in the story, or give you a different impression of the people involved?

Politicians are often quite clever in their use of language. Pay attention, lest you be swayed. Recently, I heard George Bush talk about the 15 British military personnel as “hostages” in Iran. That wasn’t accidental. He didn’t call them “captives”. I don’t know whether or not they were really in Iranian waters, but if they were, shouldn’t they be referred to as “captives” or even “prisoners”? If Iranians had been caught in US waters, you can be sure Mr. Bush wouldn’t say they were holding them “hostage”.

We all do it – use language to our benefit, either to imply the other party is at fault (those hostile Iranians taking hostages – they MUST be part of the “axis of evil”), or to imply that we are above reproach. Read your local paper, and try to look with unbiased eyes how many times your own country or city is defined in positive terms while others are viewed through a different lens. It’s often a subtle thing, but even journalists are guilty of a little bias and ethnocentricity.

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