Jobs and the Future of Work

Why we need to torpedo the language of office warfare

Employees have a discussion at the innovation lab of Swiss bank UBS in Zurich January 16, 2015.

Quasi-military models stand at odds with collaborative and creative office culture Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
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What comes to mind when you think of your office? If it’s another week in the trenches, getting flak off colleagues,seeing failed campaign strategies run up the flagpole for the troops on the front line, then your corporate culture might be heavily inspired by outdated military ideas.

The command and control culture may have worked in the days of cavalry charges and fixed bayonets, but it’s not the best way to deliver results. Businesses run on iron discipline and fear will soon be consigned to history.

A culture that takes inspiration from the hierarchies and rigid leadership models of the military is not just obsolete. It alienates millennial workers, male and female alike, who expect to be engaged with as individual human beings, not as a faceless rank and file. According to recent research, 71% of millennials want their colleagues to be like a “second family”, while 75% feel that the organisations for which they work should both mentor and nurture their talent.

How language creates the world we see

Worst of all, given cognitive science theory pioneered by Sapir and Whorf’s school of linguistic relativity, such language actually constructs our world view. It is the language we use within our business that dictates how others feel and act within it. It is therefore easy to see how military imagery continues to perpetuate the idea of business as a hostile territory: a landscape where each employee is just another embattled soldier caught behind lines in a solitary no-man’s land, pitted against a faceless enemy line made up of bosses, colleagues and customers.

Which, to continue the barrage of martial metaphors, is sure to backfire. The continued use of aggressive, alienating, military terminology helps to create a working environment where teamwork, creativity and communication cannot take root. Innovation, the research increasingly tells us, stems from diverse and inclusive groups of people, each free to contribute their ideas and watch them grow. Failures are embraced as learning opportunities, not as reasons for punishment and humiliation.

What would Napoleon do? Not the right question Image: La Bataille d'Austerlitz by François Gérard

An organisation driven by fear and devoid of empathy is something that no business can afford to be in today’s climate. The top 10 companies in our Empathy Index generated 50% more earnings per employee than the bottom 10 companies, with the top 10 presenting a share earnings rise of 9% in 2015, while the bottom 10 suffered a decrease of 6%.

Quasi-military models stand at odds with the collaborative and creative culture that we know delivers the best results and encourages the highest levels of empathy. We’ve seen the corporate model undergo a process of global decentralisation. Hierarchies are now flatter and more flexible. Authority and communication run in both directions.

From troops to teams

Language is the key to unlocking empathy, and business needs to be conscious of the power that linguistic signalling has on its employees. It is central to how they feel about their role in the company and the way the company is perceived by the public. A small improvement to the language we use at work can send send large signals to the people who work there.

The corporate world needs to stop being a battlefield and site of conflict; it is time for “head offices” to become “support bases”, for the “frontline” to become “front of house”, for “troops” to metamorphose into “teams”, “conquests” to make way for “partnerships” and for “targets” to transform into “opportunities”.

One FTSE 100 company found that changing a job ad from “tech manager” to “digital manager” boosted female applicants by 30%, with one word being all it took to attract a slew of talented women into traditionally male-dominated departments (in turn belying the notion that women simply “don’t want” to do such roles) .

Changing the language helps disrupt the one-way flow of orders from head office to remote workers. It can help transform a permission-seeking culture into one that embraces personal responsibility. The organizations that would rather stick to their guns than embrace empathy will leave everyone wondering when they are going to face the “firing” squad.

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