Changing the Language of Business

At the beginning of every year, I often find funny stories about which are the most annoying management terms for the previous year (like this one here). And often, there are words like strategy, tactics, market leadership, high performance, efficiency, quality, plan of action etc. which are so much a part of the regular corporate-speak. And then there are great leaders like Steve Job who describe their company’s work as “beautiful”, “insanely great”, “stuff you will fall in love with it”.

I stumbled upon an old article by Professor Gary Hamel, where he talks about “The Hole in the Soul of Business.” In his compelling style, he asks us to re-think the language of business. Here are some excerpts:

Here’s an experiment for you. Pull together your company’s latest annual report, its mission statement, and your CEOs last few blog posts. Read through these documents and note the key phrases. Make a list of oft-repeated words. Now do a little content analysis. What are the goals and ideas that get a lot of airtime in your company? It’s probably notions like superiority, advantage, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, accountability, and efficiency. Nothing wrong with this, but do these goals quicken your pulse? Do they speak to your heart? Are they “good” in any cosmic sense?

Now think about Michelangelo, Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, William Wilberforce. Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. What were the ideals that inspired these individuals to acts of greatness? Was it anything on your list of commercial values? Probably not. Remarkable contributions are typically spawned by a passionate commitment to transcendent values such as beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor.

I talk to a lot of CEOs, and every one professes a commitment to building a “high performance” organization—but is this really possible if the core values of the corporation are venal rather than venerable? I think not. And that’s why humanizing the language and practice of management is a business imperative (as well as a moral duty).

Again, there’s nothing wrong with utilitarian values like profit, advantage and efficiency, but they lack nobility. Reflect for a moment on the avarice and irresponsibility that produced the recent banking crisis, and wreaked havoc at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and a host of other scandal-plagued companies. If corporate leaders and their acolytes are not slaves to some meritorious social purpose, they run the risk of being enslaved by their own ignoble appetites. An uplifting sense of purpose is more than an impetus for individual accomplishment, it is also a necessary insurance policy against expediency and impropriety.

Every organization is “values-driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?

There was a time when Disney was in the joy business. Animators, theme park employees and executives were united in their quest to wring gasps of wonderment and delight from children across the globe. Today, Apple is in the beauty business. It uses its prodigious software and design talents to produce products and services that are aesthetic stand-outs. There are many within Google who believe their company is in the wisdom business, who talk about raising the world’s IQ, democratizing knowledge and empowering people with information. Sadly, though, this kind of dedication to big-hearted goals and high-minded ideals is all too rare in business. Nevertheless, I believe that long-lasting success, both personal and corporate, stems from an allegiance to the sublime and the majestic.

Now, more than ever, companies and leaders need to build a greater sense of purpose to create great workplaces and produce sustainable results. After all, “meaning” is the new money. Oh! Let me stop writing now before I, inadvertently, start using my own frequently-used-terms!

So, how are you changing the language you use at work? What questions & answers are you rephrasing?

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