New Words, New Culture

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Photo by Pierre Metivier.

“Say what?” That’s the expression we use when we don’t understand something someone has said and we suspect that, if we did understand it, we wouldn’t like it. Language is essential to organizational culture. Fortunately, words provide us with some handles we can use to influence an organization’s culture.

Leadership is all about culture development and transformation. In his excellent book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein says that the processes of culture creation and management are “the essence of leadership” and that leadership and culture are “two sides of the same coin.” If you are going to be a leader, you must engage in some level of culture change. Developing a shared vocabulary is one way to get started.

To lead change, you must become an evangelist of words. Mark Twain wrote, “A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words….the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” Three reasons come to mind why this is so…

  • A shared vocabulary can inject new life into the organization. A shared vocabulary helps to shape the very reality it describes. Language not only reflects reality but it also shapes reality. In other words, there is a real sense in which we create the world that we conceptualize.

    In Argentina, I learned a lot about construction. For example, I learned how to make wooden forms into which cement is poured to form the structure of a new building. Words are like those forms. Meaning is poured into the forms (the words) and takes shape through the words themselves.

  • A shared vocabulary protects people from stimulus overload. People can only tolerate so much novelty and when you go beyond that their natural self-preservation mechanisms kick in. This is a major obstacle to trying to influence change. But by developing a common language, we can help people assimilate the new. A common language helps people encapsulate new ideas; it’s as though the language creates space for the ideas. Not only this, but as people develop a shared language, they will be eager to fill that language with a shared meaning.
  • A new shared vocabulary can free the organization from negative baggage. It can serve as a channel by which the organization can find its unique purpose and compelling future. As an example of this, look at how many firms have changed the term “employees” to “associates,” thus communicating that they value the opinion and contribution of each and every individual in the organization.

By developing a new vocabulary, you are creating a new reality for the organization. By shaping the language of an organization, we are shaping its culture and its potential future. What a powerful tool! Through it, we can help an organization create its future, simply by helping its members find a vocabulary by which it can describe itself within that future.

What are some ways that a shared vocabulary has helped your organization develop its corporate culture? Please share your comments below.

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