Is Language Creating your Culture?

The use of language can profoundly influence a company’s culture.  The words that are commonly included in a company’s vernacular shape the behaviors and actions of the people who work there.

The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; ... your word can create the most beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything around you.
— Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

For example, companies where the words “blame” and “fault” are used more frequently than “learn” and “solve” tend to have people who are afraid to take risks and as a result, the companies are less innovative.

Let’s take a look at some common buzzwords and phrases that might help or hurt your culture.

One Throat to Choke.  Companies use this term to indicate that they want a single person responsible so they know “who to go to”.  We can debate that value of a single person responsible another time, but for now, let’s focus on the language.  “Throat to Choke”. Is this a role that anyone in their right mind would accept? Does it make you feel as if you have the backing of your company?  This language intonates a culture of fear. It tells people that they are working under threat of a firing squad. No one can work effectively that way.

Stay in Your Lane.  This term is used to indicate that people should focus on their own work. What is basically tells people is to keep their heads down and mind their own business.  This leads to the ever popular “not my job”. The increased complexity of companies today, most of the failure points fall in the spaces between people.  The only way to manage those gaps is through humans checking for cracks. Innovation also dies when people work with blinders on. Cross-pollinating ideas across departments and roles is a great way to spark ideas.  When you tell people to stay in their lane, you kill innovation.

Where does it fall on the Priority List?  I fooled you, this is actually positive language!  When people openly discuss prioritization it creates a virtuous cycle.  Instead of people doing work from whoever is yelling at them, they can now have constructive discussions about relative priority.  Of course, the twisted cousin is “that’s not a priority for me.” By simply adding “for me” someone can hijack prioritization right out from under you and turn it negative.

Don’t bring me Problems, bring me Solutions.  This is a favorite of executives that don’t want whiny underlings wasting their time.  What’s the problem with this statement? People stop coming to you when they have a problem without a solution.  Executives lose touch with problems happening on the ground, especially the ones that their people can’t solve, which ironically are the issues that the executive should be most focused on.

How can we learn the most with the least amount of work?  Sound lazy?  It's actually a positive phrase that gets people thinking about optimization and maximizing learning.  Seeking to learn. Seeking to optimize value.  Asking provocative, thought-provoking questions.  All signs of a positive culture.

How we win?  There’s a lot of talk about “winning” in corporate strategy and quarterly updates. While I’m all about winning, the language suggests a zero-sum game and even a war mentality. It focuses the culture on ruthlessness instead of customer (and employee) happiness. Do I care if my customer is happy? Not so long as it doesn’t stop me from beating the competition!

What language in your workplace has had an effect on the culture? Let us know in the comments!