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Watch your language: how word choice can sabotage workplace collaboration

When most people approach a consultant, it goes a little like this: “We have a problem. Write us a prescription to fix it.”

And when I approached linguist Anna Marie Trester, a lecturer at San Francisco State University, with an exhaustive list of questions about how to stop using the wrong words in our professional relationships—words that stifle collaboration or make it harder to build connections—I, too, expected prescriptive answers in return.

Trester hesitates to be prescriptive, for good reason. She gives me the same advice she gives her clients: Language doesn’t really work that way.

What’s in a word

Language in use can incite action, prompting us to dive in with excitement about our project alongside our peers. Or, depending on who’s talking and who’s listening, it can dam the flow of excitement, creativity, and collaboration.

“Language is the tool that we use to create and maintain relationships,” says fellow linguist Camilla Vasquez, a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of South Florida. “Relationships wouldn’t exist without it.”

Trester explains that language is ambiguous and polysemous: it always means more than one thing. As such, she and Vasquez find we are often caught unaware of how the language choices we make impact other people’s perceptions. Rather than focus too hard on individual words and phrases, it’s more important to understand that when and how we use words, as well as who we use them with, impacts our relationships on the daily. This is especially noteworthy as businesses across industries and verticals seek ever-higher marks for cultivating enviable, social-media-worthy collaborative cultures.

Rather than focus too hard on individual words and phrases, it's more important to understand that when and how we use words, as well as who we use them with, impacts our relationships on the daily.

Your window to the world might need a wash

Vasquez studies discourse, which she describes as “language in use and meaning in context.” She thinks of language like a window. When you’re looking out of a window, you’re looking beyond it, not at the window itself. But the window is a key element in mediating your experience with whatever you’re looking at.

Language is like the window; we take it for granted and forget it’s there, not thinking about the “Language creates culture, reflects culture, and impacts culture,” Vasquez says.

“Danger” language limits collaboration

At a previous company I worked for, the language and metaphors we used in meetings and emails were formal and, I’d argue, silo-enforcing. For example, when referencing cross-functional synchronicity and transparency, we’d refer to being in “lock-step.” When describing our areas of expertise or responsibility within a big project, we were advised to stay “within the guardrails.” I’ve heard this same concept described as the more innocuous (though still appropriately business-friendly) “swimlanes.” Even from the top, C-suite executives in most companies refer to “winning” in the marketplace. For the rest of us “in the trenches,” even positive team vibes take on a wartime feel.

For me (and likely others who’ve driven down a freeway), words like “guardrail” cue a “danger frame,” as Trester put it.

“I would paraphrase what you’re saying as linguistically constructing boundaries with that analogy,” Vasquez explains further. “Already, you’re repeating the idea that there are limits and boundaries, which cuts off your ability to collaborate at the linguistic level—and symbolically.”

If individual words can color perception, consider the impact when going a step further and stringing together words into a narrative.

Spinning a corporate yarn

Stories are the great equalizer. We tell stories all day—at home, at work, and on the phone to our friends as we travel between the two. Especially at work, however, it’s important to take stock of the stories being told, retold, and celebrated, as these can be powerful indications of company culture. For example, do you tell your teammates about the horrendous meeting you just had, or about the one you emerged from feeling like you could take on the world?

Caitlin Roberson, founder of CLEAR Worldwide, consults with companies and coaches leaders on their internal storytelling. After years of experience in corporate communications, she concludes that storytelling rose to the fore alongside an increase in socially conscious entrepreneurs. Younger leaders who grew up aligning their social media accounts with their LinkedIn profiles and elevator pitches tend to tell stories that are more cohesive from the outset. As a result, the purpose and values of the companies they lead tend to be more transparent—and well-honed.

Younger leaders who grew up aligning their social media accounts with their LinkedIn profiles and elevator pitches tend to tell stories that are more cohesive from the outset. As a result, the purpose and values of the companies they lead tend to be more transparent—and well-honed.

“If I’m interviewing for a job and see the word ‘should’ all over their website, I don’t want to interview with them,” Roberson says of her biggest linguistic pet peeve. “‘Should’ indicates a guilty or fear-based culture, and I don’t love the idea of ‘should-ing’ all over myself. Visionary leaders speak in present tense. For example, ‘I’m designing sales comp plans’ versus ‘I’m going to design sales comp plans.’”

The stories an organization tells internally and externally must reflect a goal. If an organization wants to foster collaboration, for example, then there need to be more opportunities to find, tell, and share stories about internal collaboration within the org. This is the advice (and business model) of Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote. His team, based in Australia, helps a roster of global businesses reinforce positive patterns of behavior, while disrupting the bad ones, through storytelling. One construction company, for example, had a well-known story about someone who lost a toe in an accident, hence their rule to wear steel-toe boots. But since there were no stories about eye accidents, no one bothered with eye protection. Changing behavior starts with assessing, and then changing, the anecdotes passed around an organization.

Changing behavior starts with assessing, and then changing, the anecdotes passed around an organization.

Take, for example, the “company story.” Distilling it can be a mystery, which is often a function of the forgettable ways in which that information is presented—likely in a slide presentation. Callahan often sees company leadership work hard on their strategy, which the CEO later takes on a roadshow to share with the entire company. But after a month, or six weeks, Callahan finds that most people in the company still don’t know what the strategy is.

“Unless everyone in the company can say the strategy off the top of their head, it’s not going to inform day-to-day approach or behavior,” Callahan says.

To alleviate this, Callahan advises leaders to work on what he calls their “clarity story,” which he discusses in his book, Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. A clarity story has three parts:

1. In the past, we were like this.

2. Then something happened, so we did this.

3. Now, we’re doing this, so the future can be like that.

It’s deceptively simple and, from Callahan’s clientele feedback, it totally works. This way, everyone can tell the company strategy off the top of their head.

Tips and tricks for avoiding linguistic potholes

The more we communicate and talk about how we talk, the more we can proactively And while we can’t be prescriptive, given the contextual variables at play, we can be more aware of what we say and how it affects our colleagues.

  • Be direct. How we ask for things is key, and being indirect can cause more grief than necessary. Think of so-called negative politeness, like the loaded Office Space-like “If you want to come in on Saturday, that would be great”—which we all know is more request than suggestion. We use these mitigation strategies, as Trester calls them, because we don’t want to sound like a jerk; but, it being a workplace, we are often asking people to do things all day.
  • Look for hot-button words. Vasquez instructs her students to pinpoint words that feel problematic in an email or a recalled conversation. Then, she asks them to identify which words make them mad and to drill down to discover why.
  • Take a breath. Consider your conversational style. Do you leave few pauses—literal openings between your words and sentences—for challenge or dissent? Trester refers to these as “transition-relevant spaces.” Sometimes, people don’t realize they’re speaking at the speed of light; other times, people do it intentionally to avoid input. This is important for all of us, as it impacts collaboration, but it’s especially important for managers. The linguistic or conversational accommodation comes from the the top; that is, the person with more power takes the lead in inviting challenge or dissent, if that is the culture you’re aiming for. It’s harder for underlings to interrupt even the most fair, kind superiors.
  • Align your stories to your values. Some stories come from the top down, while others trickle up. We all play a role in how language impacts our company culture. So tell story after story about the things your company values most, a habit that should be modeled from the top, Callahan recommends.
  • Watch your “body language” on social media. Your style of communication, as it’s broken down into words and tone of voice, comes across even online. Roberson says: “I think social media is sophisticated enough to where even digital body language is apparent to the outside world.”

The gold standard in customer service—and customer service storytelling

“If you value something, such as customer service, your organization should be teeming with customer service stories,” Callahan said. “I’ve gone to so many organizations that say they value that, but they can’t tell me one great customer service story.”

Here’s how the Ritz-Carlton does it: They ask employees all over the world to submit great customer stories. “Wow” stories, they call them. The best story is pushed out across all teams and hotels. Each team leader tells the story to their team, and they have a conversation about it—a process that has since become standard in the high-end hotels business. As a result, the whole organization is steeped in great customer service stories.

“There is no doubt that those employees know what great customer service means,” Callahan said. “That’s the great thing about stories: they’re concrete and specific. They don’t have acronyms or motivational posters because they don’t need them.”

In other words—pun intended—if you find your company culture leaves something to be desired, start with small steps by making conscious choices about the language you and your team use in every team meeting, email, and message. And tell new stories that reflect the values you hope to see amplified.

Tara Ramroop is a content marketing manager at Zendesk and frequent contributor to Relate. A loquacious Libra lady of letters, she firmly believes the craft of storytelling makes the world a more understanding and, well, relatable place. A Bay Area native, English degree be damned, she has no qualms about saying or writing "hella." Follow her visual stories and occasionally cheeky captions on Instagram @roopisonfire.