Does What We Say Really Matter?
Surely you’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words. And that people care more about what you do than what you say. And that your body language communicates way more than your words do.
What do these conventional sayings have in common? Each, in its own way, seems to be saying that verbal communication – language – is not as important as other things, such as images, modeling, and posture.
Don’t get me wrong: graphics, behaviors, and how we hold ourselves are important, vitally important even! But their importance in no way diminishes the value of actual spoken language.
What we say matters. How often we say it matters. The manner in which we say it matters. The contexts in which it is shared matters.
Language can make a huge difference one way or the other for a leader.
And perhaps the most important kind of language that we have at our disposal is the analogy.
Leadership Language and Analogies
An analogy is a language tool used in which the speaker compares one thing with another, usually for the purpose of clarification.
Here’s an example — Sometimes large institutions are compared with aircraft carriers. The analogy usually is referring to the fact that it takes miles and miles for an aircraft carrier to turn, not to mention the fact that it takes the cooperation of lots and lots of people to execute the turn.
The implication is clear: when a speaker uses the aircraft carrier analogy he or she is communicating that the institution is slow and cumbersome.
There may be truth in this analogy for a given institution. Maybe there’s a ton of red tape to wade through in order to get things done. And perhaps it takes the shared vision and effort of several people and/or departments in order for real change to happen. Great.
But what if the language we are using isn’t helping the situation. What is actually being communicated by constantly referring to the institution as an aircraft carrier? At best that change is slow and hard-fought; at worst that change is so difficult that it shouldn’t even be attempted.
And if an analogy like this is being used over and over and over again within an institution, it can begin to influence the entire culture of the institution. Sticking with the aircraft carrier analogy — if it gets repeated a bunch, then a culture begins to be created in which real change is almost never attempted.
Time for a Change of Language
As leaders, no matter the size of our influence, it’s our responsibility to pay attention to the language being used, especially the language that we use ourselves. So, if you find yourself in a situation in which a somewhat negative analogy is being used (such as the aircraft carrier analogy), start using a new analogy (like a sports team) or re-vision the old analogy (“you know, aircraft carriers do, in fact, turn!”).
One of the key traits of a leader is the ability to change institutional culture. And perhaps the best tool to bring about change is language.
Negative language will promote decline, decay, and disillusionment (forgive the alliteration!).
On the other hand, positive language will help develop vitality, vigor, and verve (okay that one was on purpose!).
What do you think? How powerful is language in creating institutional culture? Let me know in the comments below!