Language lessons to build a positive team culture

“Language is the instrument of culture,” is an abridged version of a quote by Angela Carter and it’s a message that can’t be understated.

Language and how we use it, can be incredibly powerful.

It can unite people, start a movement and help create change for the better.

Some of the most powerful moments in history are remembered by the words spoken.

For example, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963, or John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961, where he said, “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”.

Succinct words to unite and move people are peppered throughout history.

But equally, language can also be harmful and damaging, it can divide and isolate groups and people.

So what can we learn from the past, and the power of language, and how does this translate to culture and businesses of today?

Here are my top three tips:

Inclusive language is powerful

Think about how you interact with your team members day-to-day.

What language and phrases do you use, often out of habit? Do they make sense in the workplace, or do they need a refresh?

If there are certain things you don’t want your team saying, such as swearing in the office, check yourself first – are you guilty of it?

Another simple example is not referring to your team as ‘employees’ or ‘staff’ but rather ‘team members’ or ‘colleagues’.

Instead of referring to the team as ‘them’ what about changing your language to ‘us’ or ‘we’ – we are after all, in it together!

Organisational charts are important to give people clarity of responsibility and accountability, but does everyone need a fancy title?

Or could it be more meaningful for teams to understand who their go-to is for specific items/topics, as subject matter experts? 

When we talk to clients (as well as our teams), mirror their language.

An obvious one I hear so often is incorrectly assuming relationships.

For example, if someone refers to their ‘partner’, don’t assume that a woman means her husband/boyfriend or vice versa.

Recognising the subtlety of language and mirroring what you hear is incredibly powerful and respectful.

It’s the little things that make a big impact

It seems like a no-brainer (and I’ve talked about it before), but simply making an effort to say hello and goodbye to all team members each day makes a world of difference. 

Then once you nail that, getting to know your team (as a leader and team member) helps drive relationships on a deeper level.

Language helps build trust and trust helps build culture, so it’s an obvious place to start, as language is completely within our control.

If we look at the Relationship Pyramid, it’s critical to actively work to grow relationships from the top three sections (grunt and nod, stuff and things, others/3rd person) to the two bottom, more meaningful sections (talking about ourselves and where we are most vulnerable, our feelings).

When we start to show authenticity and vulnerability through language, only then can relationships flourish.

Open statements like “I felt disappointed/hurt/upset when XYZ occurred”, and “I’d like to talk it through with you to understand why” helps drive a very different discussion compared to a statement like “I’m disappointed in your behaviour”.

A simple starting place is focusing on empathy.

Empathy helps fuel connection and as outlined by nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman, there are four key qualities to offer empathy:

  • Perspective taking – the ability to take the perspective of someone else
  • Staying out of judgement
  • Recognising emotion in others
  • Communicating that feeling with people.

When the sh*t hits the fan

Team members observe behaviour of their leaders and managers all the time, which is great when things are going well and there aren’t any issues.

But what’s really telling is the language used when something does go wrong.

As a leader, do you look to point the blame and focus on who did something wrong, or are you looking to find solutions, understand what went wrong (and why) so processes can be adjusted or further training provided, meaning it hopefully doesn’t occur again?

In the wise words of Brene Brown, “Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability and accountability by definition is a vulnerable process (cue the relationship pyramid above). 

Next time something goes wrong, check yourself – observe your reaction and consider what you can do differently, through your language choices, to get better outcomes for you and the team.

If you give language the attention it deserves, you’ll be amazed at how you can influence discussions and decisions and help drive a positive culture.

It’s a powerful tool and one worth refining and practising to enable the best outcomes in all facets of your life.

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Hannah Gill

Hannah Gill is the Director of The Property Collective, REIACT President and one half of Gill & Hooper