What we say in our organizations, even in confidence, has the uncanny ability of coming out at our clients. And it is not necessarily the good stuff. The language that shapes our organizations also shapes the relationships we have with our clients. Much the same as beliefs and values are demonstrated through behavior – behavior condoned by leadership, the language used through the organization is likely to surface during client engagements. If the language does not come out in actual speech, it most probably come out in attitude, subconsciously.
Cultural permission is the tone, attitude and language that emanates from the executive suite. It is a mantra, expressed in oft-used catch phrases and philosophies that move like waves through the organization. They get adopted and interpreted as actions to be followed. They become part of everyday lexicon and cultural idioms that people hear coming from the highest levels, and form a platform for what the organization believes and expects of its people. “Get it done!” “We will not be denied.” “Take no prisoners!” These are just a few of the things coming up in the business world according to Kevin Allen in his article “How Language Shapes Your Organization” – Harvard Business Review. And from his perspective, no good comes from any of this. I agree!
In a previous post, Problem! What problem? « The Edge I refer to research that suggests that our emotions are much more strongly influenced by those around us than we realize. Harvard Professor Rand suggests, “Many variables affect the way we feel. But there is one crucial factor most of us don’t take into account: the emotional state of others.” It has been found in a study (ref. Manage your emotions, they’re contagious; http://www.healthinsite.net) that positive emotional contagion has led to improved co-operation, decreased conflict, and increased perceptions of task performance. Negative emotional contagion has the opposite effect. Negativity is an energy drain. Consider the possibility that your negative remarks, perhaps not even vocalized, has an equally negative impact on your attempt to build a relationship with another.
In a research paper, Emotional Contagion and Empathy, Elaine Hatfield, Richard L. Rapson, and Yen-Chi L. Le (University of Hawaii) suggest that scholars from a variety of disciplines—neuroscience, biology, social psychology, sociology, and life-span psychology—have proposed that primitive emotional contagion is of critical importance in understanding human cognition, emotion, and behavior. They state that people have been shown to mimic and synchronize vocal utterances. Different people prefer different interaction tempos. There is a good deal of evidence in controlled interview settings supporting interspeaker influence in speech rates, utterance durations, and latencies of response.
Marc Steinberg, Master Consciousness Coach, in his discovery of video analysis as a personal development tool, attributes “mixed signals”, which sub-consciously influence a client negatively, to feeling and thinking that we believe we are successfully suppressing. Steinberg suggests that our “subliminal” emotions have nothing to do with our temporal mood. However, the values and ethics of our organizational leadership expressed overtly or in the way they also “walk the walk, that they talk” is also likely to influence our client relationships in a positive
Kevin Allen goes on to say, “One thing common to the fraternity of leaders I have known is the rapid recognition of the power of the “bully pulpit.” The words you share travel like lightning and when they arrive at your people’s doorstep…they act on them. Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share.
The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentlemen.” Or, Rudy Giuliani, when he was working to build a better New York, stating that “People created the problem so people can fix it,” and “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. In Allen’s company, there are several phrases they use, chief among them being “Generosity of Spirit.” He believes when you set out to do something worthy for someone, it’s honorable in the first instance, and comes back to you in the second. It shapes a climate…and a bottom line.
In my organization, trust is a value that is resonating strongly. We put the client at the center of every strategic or operational conversation and do not condone any negative sentiment towards the client, as difficult as that may be sometimes. Our regional leader speaks of the responsibility that comes with power – the developmental leadership style that empowers people to take accountability for their actions. I say that with responsibility comes just as much power.
Allen suggests choosing your organizational language carefully. He suggests writing down the various phrases and expressions you use regularly. Look them over, and ask yourself what permission you think they invoke? What behaviors do you think your employees will take on when they hear them? If they exist, write down the legacy phrases that float through the organization. Are they healthy? Do they need erasing?
If you don’t have a stable of rich language, then there’s an opportunity for you to craft it, and add this language to your overall internal motivation and communications program to inspire and mobilize your people. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. It will provide the cultural permission you wish to give.