Over the past few weeks we have been reading about the people who are entering Europe seeking care, food and shelter. The European nations are overwhelmed with this human crisis. This situation has triggered a debate – what to call the people who are arriving by the thousands. Some believe they are refugees- meaning people who are seeking “refuge”. Some say they are migrants- seeking to settle in another country. Those that say the people are refugees, believe the world community has responsibility to care for them as they are fleeing poverty caused by drought and war. Those that argue they are migrants, want to apply the laws of immigration before they are allowed to enter a country.
Reading about this debate, I became aware of the power of language and how it influences our response to a situation. Language provides a window to our mental models. Language also reveals the deep-seated philosophy.
Few years ago a journalist from a leading business magazine was interviewing me for an article. After the initial small talk, he asked me how we, in our company controlled people attrition. That year there was a sudden increase in hires across the IT industry. Companies saw significant number of people leaving and joining their competition. Hence the question. I told him that in our company we never worry about controlling attrition. Attrition wasn’t a concern or a priority for us. He had a look of dis-belief. He was certain either he misheard me or that I was confused. So he repeated what I had said and asked me if that was correct. I said yes, that was in fact what I had said. He sat in silence for a few moments. Then he asked me, why we were not concerned about attrition, while every IT company was worrying about it. I told him we focus on retention. Retention is our priority. To that he said it was merely a play on words. So I had to explain the fundamental paradigm represented by each of those phrases and how they are in fact not the same.
When we “control attrition”, we focus on creating an organisation that tries to stop people from leaving – some companies kept key employees passports in a safe box, there were binding service bonds, enticing incentives to stay back, deferred bonuses, recovering training costs when leaving etc. The strategy was to close the gate, put some chains around the ankles, dangle some carrots, show the stick and make sure no one runs away. But that didn’t stop people from finding ways to get away.
When focusing on retention the emphasis is on creating an environment where people want to stay. An environment where people are treated with respect, where there is a large focus on learning, they experience a community that cares, they feel part of something big and significant, feel challenged and fulfilled. Where risking is encouraged and “failures” are not frowned upon. In that environment those who do not fit, choose to leave. That is desired attrition. That is just reinforcing the retention strategy. Here people found ways to stay and make things work.
In our organisations we use many phrases which can provide a clue to the operating culture and to the underlying beliefs or assumptions. Recently I heard a HR manager working on communicating their newly defined “shared vision” to the larger organisation say “we have a plan to take this to the rank and file”. And it was no surprise the plan had a level by level waterfall model of communication. I know of another HR head, who was working on a plan to train and educate the “masses” so as to create a culture of innovation and risk taking.
Once I had a meeting with the CEO of a large multinational IT company. I met him in his office on one of the upper floors, designated as the Corporate Offices floor- newly refurbished and spacious. After the meeting was over he wanted to know if I was going down to the “shop floor” to meet anyone else. Guess what the agenda of our meeting was? He wanted to know what to do about the “lack of a feeling of connectedness or belongingness among the employees”. Of course he was discussing about the “masses” who worked on the “shop floor” in the “factory” below.
In IT industry “resources” is a commonly used word. There is resource management, allocation of resources, resource planning and forecasting. Here reference is to the people, not money or furniture. When there is excess resource, those in excess are sent to the “bench”. And when the bench is “ageing”, you clean up the bench, so other resources can sit on that bench. Some have chosen to call the resources as human capital. Resources or capital, they point a paradigm of a commodity that that can be deployed, moved around and expended!
If you desire a new operating culture in your organisation, and plan to implement different initiatives towards that intent, I suggest, you also pay attention to the various words, phrases and terms that are part of the organisation lexicon. Identify assumptions and hidden beliefs they point to. And observe how they drive and influence the day-to-day response and action. Changing external behaviour requires changing the internal operating beliefs.
The language used gives a clue to what is operating inside- is it resources or people, masses or employees, employees or associates, failure or attempt to succeed, bottom of the pyramid or close to the customer, lower grade or front line, punishment or consequences, rank and file or all employees, office boy or support staff, training or learning, attrition or retention, back office team or client response team etc. Each of these terms creates a certain culture in the organisation, subtely and not so subtely.
Choose the language thoughtfully. When you become aware of the underlying beliefs that come in the way of the desired culture, consciously instil new beliefs and the language to hold those beliefs. Slowly the behaviour will shift accordingly.
Next time you have a senior leadership team meeting, close your eyes and hear, identify words and phrases that need to be shown the door, because they represent that which you do not desire anymore.