Language is the ‘poor brother’ in communications, yet it has the power to change lives. The reason that it is the poor brother goes back to evolution. Early humans communicated like animals, through sounds, signs, expressions, noises etc. The structure of language is the ‘late comer’ in the process, and therefore is not as instinctive as the other modes of communications.
In this article, I begin to explore if and how the language we use is serving leaders and the organisation in the new economy. As the future unfolds, our people need to open their minds, access their imaginations to create, solving problems, start taking personal responsibility for what they do at work and in successfully managing their lives.
Having spent centuries controlling people and ensuring their minds stay closed, and their behaviour compliant, this transformation is proving to be the biggest challenge for organisations as they travel through on the journey into the unknown.
What role does language play in the new economy?
Throughout the industrial age, leaders controlled large groups of people using command and control methods, this method formed the foundation of our language structure. The relationship between employer and employee was transactional, the objectives and rules understood by both parties; the language was also transactional.
To control his / her people, strict rules, procedures and boundaries were put in place, primarily focused on what workers were not allowed to think, do or say during the working day.
The language that evolved reflected this command and control era, for example:
‘Don’t do this’
‘You can’t do that’
‘You must do this’
‘You must not think like that’
‘You shouldn’t have done it like that’
‘That is not allow’
‘Unfortunately we can’t’
‘We would like to but’
…and on and on, and we could go on all day.
Centuries of ‘telling’ people what they ‘can’t do’, ‘not allowed to do’ and ‘ shouldn’t do, or have done has closed down generations of minds; left us cradled with unhelpful and even destructive beliefs, and a blame culture that is so ingrained, it is almost coded in our collective DNA.
The bottom line is that industrial leadership has left society lacking in self-awareness, wisdom and unwilling to take personal responsibility for his / her actions.
In the new economy we need our people to open their minds, access their imaginations and start creating, problem solving, taking personal responsibility for everything they do. We need to prepare people for such unprecedented change; speed of change that will make the last couple of decades feel like a stroll in the park.
The tools to help leaders drive change is hidden in the nuances of our language.
Think about language like a road system. A road system needs designing, planning, and building, maintaining and updating as the traffic usage changes over time.
The system of language is the same. What served us well for the last three centuries or more no longer serves us in today’s climate, and will definitely not suit the climate of tomorrow.
Is it time for a complete language overhaul?
To guide people through such change it is essential that leaders provide a clear, authentic mission and provide the route for their people to get there. The organisational language provides that route, and designed so that it guides everyone towards the shared mission.
In other words, the language must be restructured to start directing workers (and customers) to what they ‘can do’, not what they ‘can’t do’, what ‘to do’, not ‘don’t do’. Every word, phrase, statement and question we use needs to be re-evaluated.
Let me highlight the difference in the outcome by exploring simple and common examples of commands.
‘Don’t drink and drive’
A harmless, well-meant command designed to protect us on the roads. Our subconscious minds do not know the difference between a good or bad command, it will oblige to either. That is why if we visualise something, we can turn it in to a reality (back to that another day!). Our clever minds also delete what it considers to be superfluous information and naturally focuses on what it has learned and therefore considers to be the ‘key words’ in any message delivered in a standard way.
Our minds cannot process negative commands without first rehearsing the command. E.g. ‘Don’t think of a flying pink elephant wearing a red hat’. In this command the person’s mind wastes energy and time thinking about the very thing we have asked them not to think about. This also creates a two stage process, wasting valuable time and energy. I have told you what not to think about, and failed to tell you what I do want you to think about. This makes it a ‘misdirected’ and ambiguous command, and it is highly likely to result in eliciting the very thought process and behaviours we don’t want.
In our minds, even this simplistic command could be understood as
‘Drink and drive’.
The command works more effectively if we say what we do want
‘Only drive when sober’
The key words being processed in our minds are ‘drive’ and ‘sober’ and on a thought process of what we do want.
Let’s take an example of the power of ‘Can’t’. After centuries of being told they ‘can’t’ think, do or say things in the industrial era, society has a legacy of limitation, collectively and individually. The statement ‘I can’t’ / ‘you can’t’ shuts down our minds to seeking possibility. It is also a belief that will affect our attitude, behaviour and refuse entry to the imagination.
To access our imagination and open up possibilities instead of saying ‘I can’t', we can say ‘what would happen if I could/did?’
When we ask this question (or a similar question) to ourselves or others, the mind begins processing all the various possibilities without constraints; realistic or not. Here we give the mind permission to open up and think.
Another example are words or phrases like ‘Unfortunately, I am afraid’
The fascinating work of scientists like David Rock and others like him, explores the influence of our primal brain on workplace productivity and on our emotional well-being and behaviour. Our primal brain is highly tuned and programmed to keep us alive. It does this instinctively by telling us through feelings whether something is a potential ‘threat’ or potential ‘reward’. He notes that the organising principle of the brain is to minimise danger, maximise reward. We are more likely to err on the side of ‘threat’ simply because we evolved at a time when those most sensitive to the ‘threat’ signal survived longer.
This means that instinctively we move towards ‘reward’ and away from ‘threat’. It doesn’t matter if the threat is physical or emotional, real or not real, our response will be exactly the same. Ask yourself, how many times a day do I ‘threaten’ my people (and myself)?
Our brains will organise words and phrases into the ‘threat’ or ‘reward’ channels, just as it will the physical stuff, and will react accordingly.
When our brains hear the word ‘Unfortunately’ for example, our brains knows that what is coming next is not going to be good news (at least not for us), and in a split second the ‘threat response’ kicks in. In turn, the threat response shrinks our ability to think rationally (Prefrontal cortex), so we tend not to ‘listen’ to the ‘reason’ or ‘excuse’ that follows. E.g., ‘Unfortunately, I am afraid we can’t get an engineer there for the next two days’. In this statement we have created a ‘threat response’ (fight or flight) and told the person what we ‘can’t’ do, a double whammy. The statement achieves nothing positive and will not elicit a constructive response or behaviours. What it will do is to cause an immediate bad feeling / experience, and the ‘can’t’ element of the statement may cause unnecessary confusion and suck up lots of time and energy on both sides.
Reframe the statement and we can create a ‘reward response’ and at the same time direct the person to what and how we want them to think. E.g. ‘What we can do is get the engineer there on Wednesday at 10 am, or Thursday at 11 am, which one is most convenient for you?
The argument presented by the staunch language ‘industrialists’ is ‘Yes but (back to dealing with the ‘but’ another day too!), if we cannot get an engineer there at a time they want, we have to tell them. The ‘unfortunately’ is there to soften the blow and let them know we are sorry’. Or they may also rationalise their argument by noting what happens if they insist ‘no I don’t want those days, I want an engineer here today’.
That is the old economy / industrial thinking. We believe we need to give bad news but soften it. It doesn’t soften, it ‘threatens’ and more importantly it directs thoughts down an irrelevant path wasting time, resources and energy, all of which are depleting by the day. Do this on a mass scale it is also costing businesses billions of pounds as well as disengaging both workers and customers.
Even when the person demands the engineer there today, we could then say something like ‘I appreciate you want the engineer there today. Though they are fully booked today and tomorrow, I can promise you the first appointment on Wednesday. Shall I confirm that right now to avoid any future delays Mr Taylor?’
How we respond does not alter the fact we cannot get an engineer there before Wednesday, it only changes the feelings and experience we elicit in the other person and saves valuable time and energy. There is no need to threaten or keep reiterating what we can’t do as it serves no purpose.
I cannot do the subject of transformational language for leaders justice in this article as the subject is massive.
We have designed a Café Style programme called Transformational Language for Leaders in the New Economy Level One. This programme uses experiential group activities to transform the language in bite-size, digestible chunks. Do feel free to download information about it and thanks for reading this article. As always we value your comments and ideas on this important subject matter.