The Language We Use in the Workplace


What role does the language we use to describe our work play in our emotional life and behavior?  Words are not experience, but words shape experience.  The language we use is a reflection of our dominant thinking patterns, as individuals and as a culture.  Language frames our structure for experience.

How much of the language we use in the workplace and in reference to business reflects our deeper beliefs and values? So much of the language used speaks to old metaphors of battles, sports and win/lose scenarios?  How much has the language of “popular” culture and “entertainment” (films, reality TV and talk radio)  seeped into the membrane of our thinking and our words?

Targets. Weapons. Pick your battles. Campaign. Strategy.– and even driving results. All of these words are derived from military terms. 

Is work a sport? Sure sounds like it.  In fact, we’ve been in meetings where we weren’t sure if we were working for the NFL or a software company.  Now this may be a bit sensitive for the sports lover reading this, but let’s take a look.

Score cards. Even playing fields.  Time-Out. The game’s not over till it’s over. Changing the rules in the middle of the game. Game changer.  Monday morning quarterbacking. How many of these terms or catch-phrases have you seen or heard or read in presentations, meetings, conference calls and even books of management and leadership.

All this language is based on the underlying assumptions we have about business. That like in war and sports, it’s all about winning and zero sum games.
Ultimately, we need to ask these questions:

  •   How is our collective (and individual) language serving us? 
  •   Does it reflect the values of  21st mindsets and knowledge-based, diverse, global workplaces?
  •   Is this where we want to be? More important, is this our vision of the future – where’s this thinking and language taking us?

Is this the way it has to be? Language is powerful. It can be inclusive, exclusive, demeaning, respectful, hostile, rewarding, judging, caring and oppositional.  It can incite and unite.  It can be about us – or about them.

Isn’t it time to clean up our language to be more conscious, smart and purposeful about how we speak?

Can we imagine a workplace culture filled with the language of inclusion and collaboration?  Can we imagine dropping the language of defense and promoting a language of cohesion and support?
So before you say another word……….

Thanks for reading.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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