Building our world with words
Imagine if we could build an extraordinary culture in our organisations simply by talking about it.
We’ve been doing some work in the field of dialogic organisation development recently, the notion that organisations are ‘socially constructed realities…the reality being created in every conversation’ (Bushe and Marshak, The Dialogic Organization Development Approach to Transformation and Change). It’s a fascinating subject and a useful reminder of the power of words in building our world.
In and among the many responsibilities of a leader skilful communication is one of the most vital. There’s nothing new in this. We know that the most effective communicators paint pictures with their words, using metaphor, analogy and the like to get beyond the rational ‘defences’ of the brain and help those listening connect at an emotional level. Again, its stuff we know. Yet how much attention do we pay when we have to get the message across quickly?
And we need to go even deeper than this and start getting really intentional in choosing our words, metaphors, etc., if we want to create the cultures and organisations that enable people to bring their best and contribute to a greater good in the world.
Consider some of those stock phrases we may use to describe how we want things to be around here. ‘Well-oiled machine’ is a well-worn metaphor for an efficient and effective operation but it may cast the people in the organisation in the role of engineers and mechanics, at least in their minds, and shape their focus to maintaining the status quo.
Equally restrictive of new thinking, creativity and innovation is the example I heard recently…’there is no money’. This has seeped into the organisational narrative as a mantra for not putting forward new proposals or ideas. People have given up. Yet the reality is there is funding available for the things that will make a difference.
Or how about ‘we need to do more with less’? This has become deeply ingrained in many organisations, unsurprisingly. And while it could be a short-form for encouraging ingenuity for many workers it has a negative meaning. Scarcity of resources, needing to work harder for the same (or less) reward, possible job cuts. As a narrative thread it creates a climate of anxiety.
Our words and the images they conjure matter greatly. Meaning is made from these words that’s not always consistent with what we actually meant.
To create the culture and organisation we want we need to choose our words, metaphors and analogies carefully, with intention. And we need to listen deeply to the metaphors others use so we can check the meaning being made and reframe before it is too late, and we’ve created a prison when a garden is what we’d planned.