Shaping Company Culture Through Language

I once had a boss who banned the entire organization from ever saying “sorry.”

Whether we were talking to customer, a manager, or each other, no one was allowed to say “sorry” under any circumstances. At worst, he explained, saying we were sorry was an admission of culpability that could carry legal consequences for the company. In general, though, he felt that apologies tended to sound hollow and automatic, and did more to delay corrective action than advance it.

As he saw it, skipping over sorries forced us to seek solutions faster. Rather than apologizing for being late with a report or miscommunicating a client request, we would go straight to, “How can I fix this?” and turned adverse situations into dialogues about progress. Removing one word from our professional vocabulary became an ongoing training exercise that taught critical thinking, problem-solving, and ownership of our work and collective performance.

Language matters. Research has even shown that our ability to discern colors depends largely on the cultural context in which we are raised: our brains cannot distinguish colors when we have no names for them. Language informs the way we think and interact with the world.

Company culture has a similar relationship with language as color perception. From mission statements to taboos on words like sorry, the language of an organization shapes its culture, and its culture shapes its people. My boss understood this, and used language to influence the way we worked and interacted as a company.

Common Tongues

Company culture is taking on a new relevance and import in this emerging era of the freelancer.

More and more, workers from across industries and generations are working from home, taking on gigs, and leaving behind the stability and predictability of the single full-time employer. Already more than one in ten workers is freelancing full-time, and analysts predict that as much as 40 percent of all work will be done by freelancers within the next few years.

Some companies have embraced home offices as an extension of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement, reducing infrastructure and overhead demands while blending elements of the mobile freelancer with a permanent workforce. Others still are compartmentalizing their functions sufficiently that they can be more or less outsourced–turned into discrete “gigs” that can be fulfilled on demand through a variety of apps and talent networks, saving only sensitive or highly specialized tasks for their internal labor teams.

Basically, neither the work, nor the workspace is a pillar of company culture. Mobile technology is giving people and their organizations more flexibility in where and how they work, while simultaneously disrupting how tasks are assigned, connected, and accomplished. Shared spaces, shared responsibilities, and shared resources can no longer be taken for granted in the mobile context. With all this potential for disconnect and silo formation, a shared language may be the most powerful way to keep people culturally united.

Passwords and Shibboleths

Language can be used to exclude just as effectively as to include.

Every industry, and most organizations, have their own unique dialects, stuffed full of acronyms, jargon, slang, inside jokes, and abbreviations. Much of this grows naturally out of need for efficiency–shortening names of reports, projects, departments, etc.–but it can also become a shield against outsiders, a barricade to interference.

Shrouding projects in obscure language might keep people from asking questions or lending unsolicited advice. Jargon and jibberish can make simple activities sound more complex or impressive, and intimidate the uninitiated; many of us assume that to be fluent in the language of a specialty must indicate true expertise. It can even be used to make coded insults–the passive-aggressive favorite of IT departments, the ID10T-Error, comes to mind.

By the same token, language can foster a sense of unity and membership. When everyone is savvy to the local shorthand and comfortable using invented terms, it is like learning the word for previously indescribable color. It trains the brain, and reinforces a sense of community. None of this depends on proximity, just communication.

The difference between building fences and opening doors with language is a combination of intent and attention. Becoming more self-aware about the language we use as individuals, departments, teams, and organizations can wake us up to obstacles we have created as well as opportunities to change habits. Coming up with shared definitions of important terms and ideas is as important a starting point to any project or industry as creating a plan or assembling the team.

Humans are social creatures, after all, and being able to communicate makes us comfortable. Culture is built on communication, as is organizational success–or failure. Be deliberate about the language you use, and empower your peers to speak the same language. Passwords can keep people out, but they can also let people in.

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Image via Pixabay