How language shapes culture and culture shapes language
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”
In Adaptive Cultures’ work across many client groups, one of the standout indicators of the cultural maturity of an organisation is the type of language used. Language gives a very powerful lens to the collective beliefs, assumptions and ways of working within an organisation.
If the work of leaders and culture practitioners is to help organisations to continue to grow and evolve, then one of our key tasks is likely to involve establishing the use of language that supports the aspirational culture of the organisation.
For example, several of our client organisations are moving from a hierarchical and rules-based culture to a culture of greater independence and achievement. The opportunity is to introduce language around personal responsibility and independent judgement. This can enable individuals to see their part in shaping the organisation.
While introducing a new kind of language can open organisations up to new possibilities and insights, it can also create cynicism when the underlying reward mechanisms encourage existing cultural norms.
For example, the agile movement introduces the language of fail-fast. With some of our clients, the idea behind fail-fast is a dramatic shift from what is current practice or culturally acceptable. In one particular organisation, people have been heard to quip that “Fail-fast means sacked-faster”. Clearly, much work is needed in that organisation to not just change the language, but to change the psychological safety around learning as an ongoing process.
- Pitch the language according to the aspirational stage of cultural maturity emerging in the organisation. The language acts as a bridge and supporter of new ways of working.
- Refine and evolve existing practices in line with the new language and emerging stage of maturity. For example, shifting policies from prescriptive and rules-based to a greater focus on principles
- Assess the organisation’s readiness for the new language. For example, introducing the language of constructive disruption may be a bridge too far for a traditional hierarchical rules-based organisation. However, language of continuous improvement may be a very useful next step.
With these three principles in mind, the following are some insights on how to effectively use language as an enabler of cultural evolution:
If you intend to create a growth mindset, use growth language
Much language in organisations focuses on fixed or static concepts. While that can be helpful in establishing stability and clarity, it can also discount the ongoing learning or growth trajectory in any organisation. The following are some ways to shift from language that reinforces a fixed mindset, to language that enables growth:
- Desired culture
- Skills and competencies
- Success or failure
- Cultural journey
- Continuing development
- Continuing process
The language of change to the language of evolution
We have found that using language around evolution rather than change is a powerful enabler of more sustainable and successful cultural evolution. It helps people to shift from a perception that “if I need to change it means I’m doing something wrong or bad” towards an acceptance that continual evolution is natural. Language of evolution helps people to observe that as we evolve we can preserve, mature and build on positive aspects of the current culture or organisation, rather than a wholesale rejection of what has been. This helps to reduce ‘change resistance’.
Easy-to-understand language leads to easy-to-act and sustainable initiatives
We have seen consultants bamboozle clients with complex language and ideas that cause them to either be rejected OR taken on as an expert/saviour by the organisation. Taking on a saviour is dangerous for an organisation; it can create dependency on a method that only the consultant understands. The new ideas may only be grasped at a surface level by the organisation and once the consultant goes they can fall into disuse and make little impact.
The easier and more digestible our language, the greater the capacity for people to quickly act on the messages and make them their own. Paradoxically, the simpler a complex message can be made, the greater its impact. Adaptive Cultures have noticed how the language we use with our clients has the potential to help them, at a very deep level, to create their new reality.
Distinguishing Map and Territory
As environments become more complex, the causes of challenges become less easy to diagnose and solve. People with different worldviews will often “solve the problem” through their own filtered worldview and personal map of what is true or right. It is essential to use language that identifies the maps we use and their possible limitations so that we can look at challenges that confront us through multiple maps and perspectives, rather than defending our own worldviews.
The upcoming Adaptive Cultures Accreditation (commencing in March 2018) supports practitioners to explore how they can enable their organisation through applying adaptive language. You can find out more here: Accreditation