How language shapes culture and culture shapes language

perspectives Jun 25, 2021

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In Adaptive Cultures’ work across many organisations, one of the standout indicators of the cultural maturity of an organisation is the type of language used. Language gives a very powerful lens to the collective worldviews, beliefs and ways of working within an organisation.

If the work of leaders and culture practitioners is to help organisations to continue to grow and evolve, then one of our key tasks is likely to involve supporting the use of language that brings to life the aspirations of the organisation.

For example, several organisations that we work with are moving from a hierarchical and rules-based culture to a culture of greater personal agency, independence, external orientation and achievement. The opportunity is to introduce language around personal responsibility, external rather than internal orientation and independent judgement. This language signposts the ability of each individual to play a part in shaping the organisation.

While introducing a new kind of language can open organisations up to new possibilities and insights, it can also create cynicism when the underlying reward mechanisms, systems or leadership behaviour encourage existing cultural norms.

For example, the agile movement introduces the language of fail-fast. With some of our clients, the idea behind fail-fast is a dramatic shift from what is current practice or culturally acceptable. In one particular organisation, people have been heard to quip that “Fail-fast means sacked-faster”.  Clearly, much work is needed in that organisation to not just change the language, but to develop an understanding of what this means in the context of the organisation and psychological safety around learning as a continual process. There is also a need to define boundaries around fail-fast. In which areas of work is it ok to fail-fast and in which areas is failure unacceptable?

While language is just one part of what creates and shapes culture, it can be a very powerful component. Here are three basic principles of applying language to enable cultural evolution:

  1. Use the language of the aspirational or emerging stage of cultural evolution. The language acts as a bridge to new ways of thinking and working.
  2. Refine and evolve existing practices in line with the new language and emerging stage of evolution. For example, shifting policies from prescriptive and rules-based to a greater focus on principles
  3. Assess the organisation’s readiness for the new language. For example, introducing the language of constructive disruption may be a bridge too far for a traditional hierarchical rules-based organisation. However, language of continuous learning and improvement may be a very useful next step.

With these three principles in mind, the following are some insights on how to effectively use language as an enabler of cultural evolution:

If you intend to create a growth mindset, use growth language

Much language in organisations focuses on fixed or static concepts. While that can be helpful in establishing stability and clarity, it can also discount the ongoing learning or growth trajectory in any organisation. The following are some ways to shift from language that reinforces a fixed mindset, to language that enables growth:

FROM (Fixed)

  • Desired culture
  • Skills and competencies
  • Project
  • Performance
  • Success or failure
  • Change

TO (Growth)

  • Cultural evolution
  • Continuing development
  • Continuing process
  • Practice
  • Learnings
  • Evolve

The language of change to the language of evolution

We have found that using language around evolution rather than change is a powerful enabler of more sustainable and successful cultural evolution. It helps people to shift from a perception that “if I need to change it means I’m doing something wrong or bad” towards an acceptance that continual evolution is natural. Language of evolution helps people to observe that as we evolve we can preserve, mature and build on healthy aspects of the current culture or organisation, rather than a wholesale rejection of what has been. This helps to reduce ‘change resistance’.

Easy-to-understand language leads to easy-to-act and sustainable initiatives

While some may use complex intellectual language as it is their way of communicating (or at times to demonstrate how smart they are), it can make messages far less tangible and actionable.

We have seen consultants bamboozle clients with complex language and ideas that cause them to either be rejected OR taken on as an expert/saviour by the organisation. Taking on a saviour is dangerous for an organisation; it can create dependency on a method that only the consultant understands. The new ideas may only be grasped at a surface level by the organisation and once the consultant goes, they can fall into disuse and make little impact.

The easier and more digestible our language, the greater the capacity for people to quickly act on the messages and make them their own. Paradoxically, the simpler a complex message can be made, the greater its impact. Adaptive Cultures have noticed how the language we use with our clients has the potential to help them, at a very deep level, to create their new reality.

Distinguishing Map and Territory

As environments become more complex, the causes of challenges become less easy to diagnose and solve. People with different worldviews will often “solve the problem” through their own filtered worldview and personal map of what is true or right. It is essential to use language that identifies the maps we use and their possible limitations so that we can look at challenges that confront us through multiple maps and perspectives, rather than defending our own worldviews.

To allow for a range of perspectives, language like: “My hypothesis is”, “If I interpret the data in this way”, “I assume that”, “My inference is”, can be more powerful than absolute language.

The upcoming Adaptive Cultures Accreditation (commencing in February 2022) supports practitioners to explore how they can enable their organisation through applying adaptive language. You can find out more here: Practitioner Development Program.

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