They’re Only Words….. Aren’t They?

They’re Only Words….. Aren’t They?

Republished by request – Check out the new book by Rob Sams

Man giving a speech

“Words provide a voice to our deepest feelings. I tell you, words have started and stopped wars. Words have built and lost fortunes. Words have saved and taken lives. Words have won and lost great kingdoms. Even Buddha said, ‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

I recently came across this quote from The Rent Collector (2012)*. It got me thinking about how the words we use can influence our actions, beliefs and attitudes at work.

To understand the influence that ‘words’ have in our workplaces, it’s important to consider not only the language and the actual words used, but also to analyse the ‘discourse’ behind the words. ‘Discourse’, when considered in a social psychological context, does not focus so much on the literal meaning of words, rather, it refers to the ideology that is often ‘hidden’ within words and the language used.

As an example, I was reminded of the importance of words and discourse when I read the following article – http://www.businessinsider.com.au/whole-foods-employees-have-open-salaries-2014-3.

In this story, a company in the USA was reported to have an ‘open door policy’ in terms of sharing financial data, including people’s salaries, right up to CEO. My initial thoughts when I read the headline (the ‘words’) were that this must be a very progressive, open and honest organisation. If the CEO shares the details of his own salary he must hold no secrets. If he shares this information, then he must trust people, and they must trust him.

If you look beyond the headline however, and consider the discourse, the ideology hidden within the words, you may discover that it might not be about trust, openness and honesty. When one analyses the discourse behind words, they can reveal much more than they appear on the surface.

To illustrate this point, here is a quote from the CEO:

“If workers understood what types of performance and achievement earned certain people more money, he figured, perhaps they would be more motivated and successful, too.”

One may look at this statement and simply think that the CEO is being clear, transparent and honest about how people are paid across the organisation, and by doing this, the CEO is aiming to motivate people to achieve and to be successful.

In considering the discourse of the language used by the CEO, it becomes clear that the CEO believes that people will be motivated by, and be considered successful, if they earn more money? It appears as though the size of a person’s salary is how this organisation measures individual success. So if a high salary equals success, it raises the question of what influence the CEO’s words have on the actions, beliefs and attitudes in this workplace.

For example, can there be any thought of those who work in the organisation, as ‘people’, or, are they are just seen as creditors? If employees are only seen as creditors, and they are only motivated and rewarded by being paid more, will this drive engagement, loyalty, innovation and good customer service? Will this type of language prime the employees to focus solely on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ of their roles? That is, deliver and achieve at all cost, because after all, that is how success is measured.

With these type of actions, beliefs and attitudes at play, the effect of this type of policy on organisational culture may be the complete opposite of what the CEO set out to achieve. Instead of honesty, openness and trust, the CEO may actually find that his words, through their discourse, drive greed, selfishness and mistrust.

Lets consider a further quote from the CEO and the discourse of the words used:

“I’m challenged on salaries all the time,” Mackey explained. “‘How come you are paying this regional president this much, and I’m only making this much?’ I have to say, ‘because that person is more valuable. If you accomplish what this person has accomplished, I’ll pay you that, too.’”

In considering the discourse of these words, I wonder if the employees listening to the CEO may think something like, “They want me to trust them because I can see all this data, but what this really does for me, as a ‘number’ at this company, is make me feel resentful because I cannot achieve and I feel useless because I am not valuable.”

Again, the effect of the discourse of the language may well be the complete opposite of what the CEO had aimed for.

If we think for a moment about the discourse of language in the context of health and safety, I wonder if this is similar to organisations that talk about ‘Zero Harm’? The same people who think Zero Harm is aspirational and motivating may also think that the ‘open door policy’ in this story is equally aspirational and motivating. After all it’s promoting fairness, honesty and a ‘high trust organisation’, isn’t it? When you consider the discourse behind Zero Harm, I wonder if it is any different to the discourse of the language used by the CEO in this story?

Words do matter. I think Buddha may have got it right when he said ‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill”

The discourse of language primes our actions, beliefs and attitudes. What do you think the discourse of the ‘words’ used by the CEO in this story could mean for the employees of this organisation?

They’re only words, aren’t they?

Reference:

· Wright, Cameron (2012). The Rent Collector. Shadow Mountain

Robert Sams

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Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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