Change the language, change the culture

There’s an English expression about letting the tail wag the dog. The inference is something lesser being allowed to influence something more substantial to a too great degree. Small things should not overly influence big things.

Within organisations there is sensible context for this. Sometimes silos can have a profound and unhealthy influence on organisational direction, ambition and culture. In such cases the tail may be controlled by strong personalities who wield power and influence. Or the dog is is in the hands of a hierarchy content to let things carry on much the way they have always done.

I have found such tail and dog dynamics at board and senior management team level, all the way down to (but not always including) the shop floor. IT was one area where, traditionally, such a dynamic might be found.

Take a scenario where the IT head honcho has been in post some time, running a small and similarly long-serviced team. Collectively they hold the IT infrastructure together and little has changed over the years. Everybody else is petrified that one or all of the IT inner sanctum will leave and the system will come crashing down. Tails traditionally wagged dogs using fear and mystery. If I don’t understand what’s going on how can I fix or change things?

Not all tail wagging is bad

Tails should sometimes wag dogs. Sometimes dogs have had their day for far too long. Dogs who refuse to be taught new tricks.

Enter the semantic tail…

Language is often indicative of organisational culture. It can have a practical role to play. I first began to study this in earnest when I was working within the National Health Service.

Language silos could be highly efficient – a surgeon and consultant discussing a patient in precise technicality, unhindered by soothing rhetoric or ‘layman’s terms’. This procedure would achieve this outcome with this likelihood of success or complications. No need to gussy it up for the patient.

But it could also be used to make something major seem less so. There was an over fondness for using words like ‘challenge’ to describe a ‘problem’, for example.

I became very interested in how risks (and risks are always part of organisational activity) are described. On the one hand, like the surgeon and consultant, the semantics of risk could be precise and used to discuss what could go wrong, its likelihood and consequence, in no nonsense terms. It could also, sometimes, make something very major seem very everyday and less consequential. The description of risk became formulaic.

I began to discern the same patterns in the financial sector and in those organisations who operations could have profound impact on the environment – such as in the chemical and petroleum industries. Here it was less about formula and more about trivialising, in much the same way as frequent transatlantic flyers might call the Atlantic Ocean ‘the pond’.

Language and in particular preferred vocabularies within any organisation could exert subtle but profound influences on how an organisation regarded itself and those that interacted with it – employees, customers, wider communities…

Habla customer?

A more obvious but nonetheless disturbing manifestation is within those organisations that like to bandy their internal terminology around wider audiences. You know the sort of thing; website navigation that uses the same business unit descriptors as appear in the annual report and accounts, even though these descriptions bare little if any resemblance to the terms a customer might use.

Why call a spade a spade when you can call it an an earth moving implementation device? Internal business unit/activity names can reflect budget lines, organisational history, even business hubris but not always the basics – customer need and understanding, or usefulness.

But what I’ve also noticed and been lucky to play some part in, more than once, is the shifting of organisational attitude and attainment by shifting the language.

On it’s own it’s a tough call but it can help kick start change.

It can be as simple using the word spade… or ‘problem’ more often, or asking more specific questions in meetings, such as “Who is going to do this?” rather than “How are we going to approach this?”

Sometimes there’s a need to bring several languages together. Sales terminology needs to be mapped back to product development and then rationalised with support/after sales services. Sometimes shareholderese has to be demoted from first language status. Sometimes language needs to be braver, less… apologetic.

Often there is a need to go out and listen to customers and port some of that language back into the organisation. I recently spent several days dealing with a call centre over a mobile phone issue and whomever developed their scripts deserved to hear some very specific Anglo Saxon and Norse terms from my own vocabulary.

I stress was some higher authority I wanted to get at. It was very obvious that the call centre staff had been rehearsed in responses that they also found difficult and artificial. Which is why I made the point earlier about: ‘all the way down to (but not always including) the shop floor’. Often, when you get to the shop floor, you hear things the way they are. Shovel makers do not mince their words. And a spade is exactly what it should be.