Financial Data
Updated 15 Oct 2019


Choose your words carefully

If you want to create a culture of innovation, or change attitudes and behaviour in the work place, start with your words.


30 June 2014  Share  0 comments  Print


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Language is one of the defining traits of human beings. It’s how we learn, communicate ideas, it shapes how we perceive the world, and we learn culture through it.

As logic would follow, if we learn our culture through the language used to describe it, surely the same follows when defining or changing company culture? Absolutely.

The power of vocabulary

If you want to change attitudes and behaviour in your company, you need to begin at the top, adjusting the language used by managers, executives and other top staff.

Here’s how it works: Work to eliminate phrases like, “I can’t,” and use more constructive versions to emphasise the possible:
“I could if I…”

How do you enforce it? Nominate someone to be positive police. If you or one of your management team say “I can’t,’ you’re to pay a R50 fee.

It seems simplistic but you’d be surprised how quickly adults will catch on to it. Why R50? The amount needs to be large enough to be taken seriously, but small enough so that when an individual gets caught speaking negatively in front of colleagues, it’s not cause for embarrassment.

A case in point

It’s all well and good hearing about ideas, but it’s examples of being put into practice that really drive home the impact of small changes.

Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines (one of the largest publishing companies in the US) noticed negative speech patterns used in the company had made an environment hostile to new ideas.

Phrases like, “We’ve tried that already,” or “That will never work,” were rife.

Black implemented a $10 fine for every negative remark and negativity was all but wiped out in a matter of weeks, creating a much more positive and creative work environment.

The science behind a positive phrase

If you’re wanting to change the culture in your company to one that is more can-do, implement the phrase, “How might we…?” These three simple words in combination have a powerful effect on people’s attitude and behaviour for the following reasons:

  • “How” suggests there’s possibility for improvement if a way is found. When faced with difficulty, it’s a matter of finding a workable solution.
  • “Might” is an important word because it temporarily lowers the bar a little and allows room for wild or improbably ideas. “Will” is a little too cemented in reality, not giving scope for the out of the ordinary, and causes individuals to self-edit and send ideas to the dustbin before even voicing them.
  • “We” is arguably one of the most important of this trifecta. It establishes ownership of a challenge and makes it clear to everyone involved that this is a team effort requiring everyone’s participation for success.
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