Our Room 101: Words That Need to Leave the Workplace
Words are powerful. In just one comment or one sentence, you can transform someone’s emotions and feelings for better or for worse.
As a society, we are becoming more aware of the power of words and the way they have shaped our environment and our cultures.
For example, one study by Stanford Linguists and Psychologists found how one relatively harmless sentence, such as “girls are as good as maths as boys” can subtly change sexist stereotypes.
Words not only shape how we see the world; they shape how we perceive others and how we see ourselves. They quite literally build the reality in which we work and live.
Which means when it comes to your company culture words will have a profound effect on how your company culture is perceived, how people communicate with each other, how people speak with your clients, and how they feel being part of your business.
Unfortunately, the old saying of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a complete fallacy. In one study by the University of Jena in Germany, it was discovered that even saying the words “this is going to hurt” before a vaccination shot increased the sense of pain the patient felt.
Numerous research studies show that words alone are capable of activating any range of emotions and felt experiences. So the question is, are words doing us a disservice when it comes to the workplace?
Choose Your Words Wisely
Words have meaning. In our vast languages around the world, words have a historical context, sometimes even a class-based reference. Which means when using words without conscious thought, we can often end up offending someone or making someone feel negative, without that ever being the intention.
If we don’t start to build some awareness around the words we use in our businesses and our company cultures, we could be inadvertently damaging our brand and the people who drive the company forwards.
To shift our mindset and our perspective of the workplace, we need to start with the language and words we use around it.
There may be some words in your dictionary that you can’t stand that perhaps give you that nails down a chalkboard kind of feeling.
To highlight the importance of the words we are using in our company cultures and our businesses, I’ve revealed the top words I wish would leave the workplace and never return.
In my head, when I think of the words ‘human resources’ I envisage a human farm such as something seen in the film The Matrix. People are picked up and dropped as and when they are needed.
It’s a cold set of words that have many negative connotations.
People often fear human resources, as it’s unknown whose side they are really on and whether they can be trusted.
Are they on the side of the people or the business? And can they truly be on both sides?
There are some discrepancies about where the words ‘human resources’ originates from, but it’s clear that it began in a time where people-centred problems were booming for businesses as they were growing at a fast-pace. They needed a department to help the company, ‘manage and use people’ – as quoted from The Conference Board.
Manage and use people doesn’t sound like something we should be doing in our workplaces – to me that sounds like some form of manifesto from a tyrannical dictator. Not quite the most supportive language to help nurture people.
It’s no surprise then that new-age businesses are no longer using the term ‘HR’ and are instead opting for more defined roles and departments that focus purely on team wellbeing and happiness.
While the title, “Chief Happiness Officer” still makes me cringe, at least it’s a step ahead from the human-farming visions of human resources.
Here’s something to make you chuckle – type in the word ‘manager’ into Google and look at the first dictionary definition.
Manager – “a person for controlling or administering a group of staff.”
If you were some alien new to planet earth, you would assume that ‘staff’ would be some kind of rampant, wild animals that must be running amok.
“These staff need managers, they’re making a mess of everything.”
And that’s the assumption isn’t it – a manager is there to control people. And don’t they know it.
The term ‘micro-manager’ didn’t just pop out of thin air.
Unfortunately, the perception of a manager is to keep people in their place in the hierarchy, stop them from doing any potential damage, and control their every move to ensure they’re being productive and not wasting the businesses money.
The data even backs this up as a study from Gallup revealed that more than 50% of people leave their jobs because of their manager.
Quite simply, the word is outdated and offensive.
It assumes that people don’t know how to control their time which means they need someone to babysit them. And it assumes that a manager’s only role is to control people.
For everyone involved, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Which means it’s no surprise that many ‘managers’ refuse to use the word in their workplace.
Recruitment agencies use the word ‘talent’ relentlessly. As if it’s some kind of magical word which means they will find the unicorn you’ve always been looking for.
Besides – what does talent mean anyway? And how do you differentiate talent?
Talent is entirely subjective.
Without realising it, the interpretation of the word ‘talent’ can be detrimental to your people and their performance. For example, the words ‘top talent’ is regularly used in corporations to define who’s got potential and who hasn’t.
For me, I also feel the word talent is dangerous because it creates a sense of superiority. As if in our human species, there are those who are talented and those who are not – which as we all know is simply not the case. We all have various natural talents which are dependent on a range of personal qualities.
If used too often, talent can also make people leaders focus too heavily on particular skills or attributes of new hires, meaning they’re less likely to discover someone who is an ideal fit for the role, simply because they’ve already decided in their own minds what this ‘talent’ looks like.
The word employee is really just a legal term that identifies a person’s position within the company. It doesn’t, however, create any sense of belonging or social connection to your company culture or your business.
Using the word ‘employee’ as a throw-away term in your workplace generates a sense of detachment. That somehow the people in your business are separate to the business, rather than a core part of it.
As one CEO has said, “I hate the word employee, because it implies someone is working ‘for me’, rather than ‘with me’.”
Feeling excluded or disengaged from the business is a systematic problem which all too many companies face. Yet, how often do we reflect on the language and words that we use to motivate and engage our team?
We can’t deny that conflict occurs in the workplace, and can cause havoc on a company culture.
But it’s funny how the very word of ‘conflict’ can be a spark that ignites more conflict and gossip among teams, than the original conflict itself.
A strange thing happens when the word ‘conflict’ is spoken out loud, people’s backs get up and suddenly there’s a sense that we need to take sides. Fear begins to rear its ugly head and it’s as if Pandora’s box has been opened.
Conflict happens, but we forget that it’s also healthy, and that we can reframe it into a more positive and growth-based mindset when we just switch the word to ‘challenge’.
Too many businesses avoid ‘conflict’ because it feels like a dirty word, and that somehow it’s related to a failing in the company. Nobody likes to admit to conflict.
However, conflict happens, but move your word to ‘challenge’ and watch how people change from being afraid and stand offish, to curious and open minded. It totally transforms the conversation.
Quit The Jargon
As well as the words you use when referring to your team or your people, it’s also important to consider how you’re using words to discuss projects or your services.
Jargon is rife among all businesses, and many don’t even realise they’re doing it because they are acquainted with that language every day.
A great example of this is Google.
Google indeed continues to be in the top spot for the best company culture, but they’re not perfect.
For example, in much of the communications that they send out to their customers, it’s heavily jargon filled with technical language that only a Google developer would understand.
So lesson to learn – ensure that the words and language you are also using externally is inclusive.
You don’t get brownie points for sounding clever. Take your ego out of the equation and talk to the person in the room.