Pam Hamilton explores how language influences culture.
Committees have been described as “a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled” (Barnett Cocks), and “a group that keeps minutes and loses hours” (Milton Berle).
In my worst experiences of committees, more time is spent on talking through the minutes of the last meeting, listing who is present and absent, arguing about pedantic points of order and scheduling the next meeting, than on any actions or deliverables.
I don’t believe that any productive person would ever willingly start or join a committee. You can tell by now that I really dislike them. However, I would consider joining an action group or a project team.
I also have an issue with workshops. This is somewhat controversial as I’ve based my career on leading workshops. However, I know very well that when people are invited to a workshop they expect the worst.
We have all been to those dreadful meetings pretending to be workshops where the facilitator patronises the audience and won’t write anything on the flipchart apart from his own ideas. I don’t invite people to workshops anymore, I instead invite them to inspiration sessions, roadmap meetings or alignment events.
Rename your team
Does changing the name of the group influence its culture? Does it even matter what it’s called? Absolutely – the descriptor we choose for our team influences its culture and ways of working. We are creatures of habit.
Our behaviours are based on patterns and beliefs from our past experiences, and those shape how we behave in the present
Our behaviours are based on patterns and beliefs from our past experiences, and those shape how we behave in the present. If you call your meeting the same thing you’ve always called it, people will assume that the meeting will be the same as it always was, and they will bring those behaviours to it, and you are likely to achieve what you always did.
When we are invited to join a committee, we remember past committees, and don’t question (or sometimes luxuriate in) long, boring, unproductive meetings and lack of action.
Consciously choosing what we will call our team, our project or our meetings is an important step in aligning on what we are setting out to achieve and how. For example, calling ourselves the “clean air action group” suggests a very different attitude and ambition than the “air pollution committee”.
How we speak is who we are
When you hear someone say “if we achieve our objectives” rather than “when we achieve our objectives”, you know that they think they may not achieve them. Language obviously carries meaning and intention. Listen at your workplace; what are the common phrases and words you hear people use?
Do people talk about wargames, battle grounds, key thrusts and scrums (accompanied by fist punches and shouting “yeah!”)? Or do you hear people talking about outcomes, emotions, values, and needs (with sympathetic smiles and even hugs (pre-COVID of course)? The language we use has a massive influence on how we think at work, and that’s because language codes the way we think.
One of the organisations I work with has an extremely competitive culture that considers commercial results to be the most important focus, no matter how they are achieved. We worked on a project to create a “best practice sharing” programme, because evidence shows that sharing knowledge increases performance and efficiency, and makes teams more successful.
But it was completely rejected. ‘Best practice’, implied a ‘nice-to-have’, soft skills sharing space, and the highly competitive team saw nothing in it for them. When we changed the programme to a peer podcast series where people could raise their personal profile by talking about their successful projects in a series of company-wide podcasts, we had enormous take up.
The same people who didn’t have time to give each other advice were queueing to be on the next podcast talking about their successes – and sharing best practice. So long as we didn’t call it that.
Beware the buzzwords
It is very common for teams to think they’re working towards the same goals because they are using the same words, and don’t realise they each mean something completely different. ‘Sustainable’ can mean environmentally sustainable, or commercially sustainable, or in the case of health and social care, having a lasting impact beyond an initial intervention.
Depending on who you talk to, ‘digital’ can mean the internet, the technology department, the computer equipment, social media presence, online marketing or ecommerce. In a report commissioned with industry leaders, nine out of ten companies surveyed claimed they were undergoing digital transformation, even though only a quarter of them admitted to knowing what digital transformation actually meant!
There are so many common words we constantly hear and use at work, thinking we all mean the same thing. Haven’t we all been in that situation where we have pretended to know what a word or acronym meant and then find ourselves, 10 meetings later, wishing we’d asked in the first meeting?
In some ways, this is more dangerous than disagreeing with each other, because we are misagreeing – thinking we agree when we really don’t! For this reason, we need to be extra careful that we are not making assumptions about language or using buzzwords.
Instead of using a well-used word, try choosing a new descriptor that makes people understand that your work is different from the other projects.
Create a better culture by using deliberate language
Let’s be more deliberate with the language we use, whether in naming our teams, naming our projects or what we call our meetings. If you want people to turn up expecting what they got last time, then by all means, send an invite for a committee or a workshop.
But if you want to shift people’s beliefs, behaviours and attitudes, create new ideas, reset thinking or provoke better performance, call it something different, and set your own culture for this new team, in line with what you want to achieve together.
Language doesn’t just code culture – language is our culture. Culture change of any type starts with recognising, challenging and changing the language we use.
About the author
Pam Hamilton is a teamwork expert, MD of Paraffin and author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork (to be published in January 2021), and The Workshop Book.