Watch Your Language!

If you’re trying to understand—or change— an organization’s culture, one important leverage point is the institutional language. This is the array of words and phrases that appear consistently, although often unconsciously, when people in the organization make reference to its employees, leaders, customers, practices, etc. Institutional language is important because it is grounded in a set of values and beliefs which is then communicated throughout the organization when you use that language.

When the challenge is to build a truly engaged enterprise, the language related to employees is particularly important. For example, I’ve worked in organizations that referred to their employees as either “professional staff” or “non-professional” staff. Whatever other purpose this distinction may have served, I’m pretty sure that it didn’t encourage the so-called “non-professionals” to bring their A-game to work every day.

And just think about those TV newscasts we’ve all heard in which government officials, faced with a major weather event, announce that all “non-essential personnel” have been told to stay home from work.  Think about it: how would you feel about going to work every day for an organization that regards you as “non-essential?”

A public relations executive colleague of mine once told me, “Never use internal language you wouldn’t want your customers to discover, especially when you might be referring to them.” It’s interesting that we generally take great care to examine our “customer-facing” language, but rarely think much about how we talk about and to the people who serve those customers.

Of course, you might be thinking that this is much ado about nothing. You might be asking, does the institutional language we use really matter all that much?  While working on a journal article, I found an interesting article by the CEO of the Arizona Girl Scouts organization that dealt with this question. After a survey revealed that many of the organization’s volunteers felt that the organization did not trust them, the CEO took a hard look at its institutional vocabulary.  For example, in a 4-page brochure used to recruit volunteers, she found the words “must,” “mandatory,” or “required” used 84 times. Ultimately she concluded: “In our zeal to promote the health and safety of girls, we had unknowingly used command-and-control language that implicitly communicated that we did not trust our volunteers to make their own decisions in the best interests of the girls.”

Speaking more broadly, she then added: “…we discovered just how powerfully our own language had influenced and contributed to our organizational culture. We are still debating whether the language described or created the culture. Perhaps it did both.”

So yes, institutional language does matter.

When Cleveland Clinic made the commitment to build a culture that fostered high levels of employee engagement, we made a number of changes to our own institutional vocabulary—the most important of which was to substitute “caregiver” for “employee” in all of our communications.  Our ID badges were changed to say “caregiver,” and “We are all caregivers” became our mantra, even appearing as the title of our annual report. The message was transmitted repeatedly on our internal communications media, and reinforced by managers at every level in their meetings and presentations.

The rationale for the change was simply that everyone who worked at the Clinic had the potential to create a positive—or negative—experience for a patient, family member, or colleague. Not only the doctors and nurses, but also the people who delivered the patient’s meals or cleaned their rooms or answered questions about a bill—everyone had a role in creating a positive, or negative, experience for our patients and their families. The transporter who helped reassure a nervous patient on the way for a test procedure, the facilities worker who asked a family member who looked a little lost if they needed help, the admissions person who answered questions with patience—all of these people were “giving care.”  

And this isn’t just something that applies to hospitals and other non-profit organizations. Whether the organization provides a product or a service, everyone in the organization is important to living out its mission. Everyone has to see themselves in the value chain of serving a customer directly or serving someone who is an internal customer. When people see themselves this way, you have the starting point for a truly engaged enterprise. When they don’t….

But here’s the thing: it’s important, but not sufficient, to use the right language. As a leader, you have to go out every day and earn the right to use that language. You’ve got to “walk the talk.” If you want to make it clear that everyone in your organization matters and has a role to play in the organization’s success, it’s not enough to start referring to employees as “associates” while continuing to treat them as replaceable cogs in a wheel.

At Cleveland Clinic we took whatever steps we could to reinforce the idea of “We are all caregivers.” We established a highly popular caregiver wellness program and a recognition program that celebrated the little things that our caregivers did every day. We created the Cleveland Clinic Experience Program, in which we took all 43,000 caregivers off line over a nine month period to meet in small, cross-functional groups—groups that included staff from every level and function, including physicians and senior executives — to talk explicitly about how each of their roles touched our patients. And when we were forced to close one of our community hospitals, we worked very hard to place 90% of the caregivers from that facility into other jobs within our system.

The result? Our engagement surveys, and perhaps more importantly, our patient feedback, made it clear that our new institutional language did indeed resonate with our people, and did make a difference in how they felt about their work and how they actually performed that work.

So once again, language does matter. As a professor of psychology at Stanford commented in an article on the relationship between language and thinking: “… it turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think.” And changing how people think is the first step to changing how they act.

Which brings me to you and your organization. Does your institutional language need to change? Does it encourage or discourage engagement? Is it as empowering as it could be? Are your employee handbook and policies loaded with command and control language—“must,” “required,” “cause for dismissal,” etc.? What about the language you personally use every day at work?

Let me know your thoughts and reactions.

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