The Language We Use in the Workplace

 “I can remember many conversations at work where former bosses would start to pull out the war metaphors—“This is a life and death struggle,” “We are in a battle for our very existence,” and “This is all out war.” The only problem was that it wasn’t actually war—it was computer software, TV news and corporate training videos.                                  Bob Rosner, Today’s Workplace
How does a workplace riddled with war and sports metaphors impact civility?

 Only recently we wrote one of our most popular posts of 2010 – Every Word Has Power.  Given the deeply disturbing violence in Arizona over the weekend, we felt compelled to revisit the topic and raise some more questions about the role language is playing in creating greater incivility in the workplace. Maybe our war of words is morphing into our 21st century version of civil war.
 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
Is business war?

How much of the language we use in the workplace and in reference to business reflects o deeper beliefs and values?  Doesn’t our growing tolerance of harsh, derogatory and uncivil language signal that our core societal values are shifting? What was “unacceptable” even a year ago is suddenly permissible parlance.
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?
Battle metaphors in the workplace are not new. In fact, the language of the workplace has its roots in militarized organizational structureswhich is based on positional power and hierarchal dominance.
Targets. Weapons. Pick your battles.  Barrage. Trench warfare. Attack. Collateral damage.  Surgical strike. Campaign.  Frontal assault. Combat.  Unconditional surrender.  Strategy.  Guerilla warfare. Marshalling resources. Maneuver. Command. War room – and even driving results.

The language of war is everywhere – from Trade Wars to the War on Fat. 
 Is work sports? 
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. Ground game. Blocking and tackling. The best defense is a good offense.  Hole in one.  Stepping up to the Plate. Direct Blow. Uppercut. Goal. Pass. At bat. Curveball.  Bases loaded.

How many of these terms or catch-phrases have you seen or heard or read in presentations, meetings, conference calls, management books, or on motivational posters in the company break room?
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 and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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