The Power and Subtlety of Language in the Workplace

In this final installment of his series, Markku Allison explores how we can dramatically improve the flow of understanding if we are just a little bit more rigorous in making sure we are on common ground with the words we use and the meanings we intend. Read part one here and part two here.

Image courtesy of the author, Markku Allison.

Language is the fundamental currency for any relationship. We are challenged because many times what we say — or what we think we say — is sometimes not what we mean. Similarly, what we hear is not always what we thought we heard. We can dramatically improve the flow of understanding if we are just a little bit more rigorous in making sure we are on common ground with the words we use and the meanings we intend.

Language and collaboration

Almost all of the problems we deal with in business and culture today are complex problems. Collaboration is the most effective method for solving complex problems. Almost all of us think we are effective collaborators, but ALL of us can remember instances of working with team members who were decidedly not effective collaborators. Chances are, they thought they were effective collaborators too. This is pervasive in today’s workplace. Why the disconnect?

Think back on your experience in the workplace or in your personal life. If you’re like most of us, you can think of at least a few instances where you experienced a significant misunderstanding that later could be traced to a differing interpretation of one or two simple words. The disconnect regarding collaboration is that we just don’t share a common understanding that collectively informs our actions.

We generally don’t work very hard to ensure this common understanding. We use our words swiftly and a little carelessly, sometimes creating situations ripe for misunderstanding. We don’t do it on purpose… it’s just that we are so clear in our own minds what we mean that it doesn’t even dawn on us that someone else might not see it the same way. We work in teams and in groups, which requires us to share information frequently. We work really hard to make things as simple and clear as we possibly can to ensure the easiest sharing. But what we often fail to recognize is that we usually make things as simple and clear as we can based on the way that we see the world. You are different than me. You see the world through a different lens, shaped by your experience and preferences. So when you look at my clearly and simply presented information, you might see something close to what I planned but much of it might escape your attention, leading to frustration on both sides.

Values and actions as examples of the power of language

Values guide our behavior. In a seminar on ethics I got this great tidbit: “Don’t tell me about your values. Let me observe your behavior and I’ll form an opinion about your values.” Actions tell us — and more importantly, others — about the values we hold, and in collaborative work, defining shared values to a degree of clarity that we can confidently hold one another accountable to them is something we almost never do.

How can we navigate this challenge? We can develop tools and processes that build common understanding and support alignment over time. This is especially powerful when it’s done by the group that wants to hold itself to new standards when working together. A group can collectively identify values they’d like to aspire to, and choose actions to reflect those values. Of course, we use language to identify, name, and define them. The goal is to develop definitions that allow members of the group to observe their collective behavior and be able to state with a high degree of confidence that “yes, I / we / they are behaving accordingly”.

For example, we all think we know what we mean when we say “accountable”. But if I’m to watch your behavior, or have guidelines for my own behavior, the definition needs to be clear enough and robust enough that we can all look at our behaviors and say with a high degree of confidence that “yes, he is being accountable,” or “no, he wasn’t being accountable”. So, what does it mean to be accountable? Through small group moving to large group work, three teams I’ve worked with came up with these three robust definitions:

  • We do what we say we will, when we say we will. We are dependable. We take responsibility for our work. We admit our mistakes and work immediately toward solutions.
  • We take responsibility for our actions and actions of others for whom we are responsible. We know our limits and others can count on us.
  • We do what we say we are going to do. We follow through. We share success and failure collectively and take responsibility for our actions.

The definitions are similar but have differences. In each case, though, the team members can reflect on their behavior and from one member to another say with a high degree of confidence that they were indeed accountable or not.

A set of one team’s robust values definitions. The power here comes from the shared understanding, the act of collectively defining, and through a regular process of reflection on alignment. In every instance, it’s the power and subtlety of language at work.

A set of one team’s robust values definitions. The power here comes from the shared understanding, the act of collectively defining, and through a regular process of reflection on alignment. In every instance, it’s the power and subtlety of language at work.

Other examples

Values and actions are a clear and powerful example of the importance of language, but there are many more. For a conference in early 2014 I asked Dean Reed from DPR Construction to examine and share his experience of the impact of language on the work of a collaborative team. He polled all team participants and came up with 19 points of the ways language influenced their work, both positively and negatively. Here are some powerful examples from his presentation:

  • Language can help and harm. It can encourage and empower or discourage and undermine ideas and actions.
  • Building operators, architects, engineers and contractors speak different dialects, which sometimes vary within the same organization and often within the same discipline or trade.
  • You need the “right” people in the room. Language has no power without people to hear the words. Those are project participants and stakeholders who can speak to value.
  • Face-to-face conversations in workshops, as opposed to meetings for reporting progress, are the most effective. The telephone game is true. Reported conversations, especially by people outside the team, often lead to misunderstanding.
  • People use language to organize themselves for action. This is an essential first step.
  • Language is progressive. Understanding comes in layers, rarely all at once. Conversations should be structured to work from big and simple to small and detailed, based on understanding and agreements made at each step.

These are examples from the design and construction world, but they apply to all workplace endeavors.

Pause. Listen. Really listen. Ask questions to clarify understanding. Getting to know your teammates and coworkers as the unique individuals they are will help you understand that they are different than you, and might help you take just a little more effort in packaging information — or using language — in a way that is more compatible with the way they see the world. If we take the time to do this, to ensure a greater common understanding, our ability to effectively collaborate goes way up, and our collective ability to solve today’s complex workplace problems is significantly enhanced.

Looking back at our conversation, here’s the bottom line: The challenges we face in business and culture today are almost always complex as opposed to simple or complicated. Collaboration is the most effective response to problem solving in a complex environment. Using language mindfully to build common understanding is central to effective collaboration.

The organization that acknowledges these deep transformational currents and that responds accordingly greatly enhances its chances for increased agility, resilience, and success in the workplace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *