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Said Wittgenstein. Language in business and organizations creates frames, but also limitations. And we have lots of these frames. ‘Employee Engagement’, ‘Talent Management’, ‘Change Management’ for example are common frames for anybody in business, but, for an alien they are far from clear conceptual entities. By using a particular language we infer that everybody will have a common understanding of what is meant, but some of these ‘concepts’ have many varying interpretations.

‘Change management’ is perhaps at the top of the abuse charts. It’s use in IT puts simple accent on ‘making the new IT system live’. It’s use in project management, in mergers & acquisitions and in cultural change has however very different meanings. By calling something ‘change management’, far from creating shared understanding, we are creating a limitation of understanding. This limitation of the language creates itself, limitations in the world of management.

Other bits of management dialect that have set up permanent camp in the organizational landscape, have become standard jargon which, because of their progressive lack of meaning, as before, create limitations in the world of management. Try to have a conversation these days on ‘empowerment’ and you’ll see the smiles of people around begging for a definition of some sort. And better that, than continuing the conversation assuming that everybody ‘knows what we are talking about’

Tribal language – and business language is tribal – can’t be suppressed, only substituted. An injection of clarity and plain language would do us all a favour.

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  1. Koen Vingerhoets

    Sometime ago, I blogged (within the company) on a more or less similar topic: the power of language.

    “Our world is a wonderful thing. Our senses are bombarded pretty much all the time with an abundance of impressions. Everyone filters in that abundance to retain what is required. That’s how we all end up with our own perception of the world.

    Imagine you would have to tell someone how your weekend was, using nothing but gestures. Would you be able to explain the smell of the herbs on the BBQ? Through language, words often still fall short, but at least it’s feasible to give more detail. Language is a powerful mean to create an image of how one sees his own world.

    When people communicate with each other, they use language to make a bridge between all the different perspectives and views. Alas, in doing so, we often don’t mention things that are logical in our own perception, we generalise, we identify with feelings,… It creates confusion, unclarity. Hence my appeal: be specific. Language is as powerful as you want it to be. If in your perception of the world something has to happen, make it happen.

    Example: “I would like to propose that everyone tries to review this document.”
    My dear colleagues… please reflect a moment. Do you sometimes ask questions as in the example? No? Think again, I see this so often it has become my pet peeve. I’ll give some reactions to the example that are all ok: “Good proposal”. “I would like to propose that too”, “I tried but failed”, “I reviewed it”, “Are you unsure about this?”, “Why would you do that?”.

    Be specific!! Some words that really kill the power of our language in the above example
    – “would” – what do you mean, would? What’s the condition to fulfill?
    – “like” – ok, but do you propose it or not? Do you need someone to help you to propose this?
    – “propose” – either you need it or not, but what is propose? Can I choose to accept the proposal?
    – “tries” – to try is futile… you either do or do not. If in doubt, try to cook water. Report back in a week whether it boiled or not.
    – “review” – reread? Correct? Or just a second view? What is expected?

    Please be specific, ask something like: “Please mail me your feedback on the clarity and use of pictures in this document by friday noon. Thank you.” Be specific, use the power of our language to make things happen. Your colleagues don’t know how you perceive your world, make sure they do.

    I’ve asked a few people why the communication between colleagues is often so ‘soft’, powerless, not specific. They all answered: “it’s our culture”. One of my tasks here is to change culture. On that account, I add the S to our “PRO” (professional – respect – open communication) approach. We are PROS: professional, respectful, with open and specific communication.”

  2. Morag

    So true Leandro. Other “top of the abuse charts” include “leadership development” and “performance management” . Language in companies needs to be not only shared, but “vital” ie immediately understandable, clear and relevant.

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