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Georgina Bromwich

The Writer

Writer and trainer at The Writer

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Don’t let leaders pay the price for empty words


Is your organisation on a ‘transformation journey’? (Most of our clients seem to be.) And how does that phrase make you feel? If the answer is annoyed, or bored, you’re not alone.

Chad Murphy and Jonathan Clark from two US universities studied how leaders share a workplace’s vision, values, or purpose with the people employed there. And they found that, not only did vague or complicated corporate language do little to boost employees’ morale, it also affected the bottom line.

The results aren’t surprising. What does surprise me, though, is that so many leaders – and the people writing for them – haven’t clocked how this supposedly strategic blah makes their people react. If leaders want their employees to live and breathe the business’s values, behaviours or mission, they need to turn empty words into something concrete. Something employees can relate to. Something that makes sense to them.

Tangible words and phrases work harder

I run writing workshops every week, all over the world. And whichever business I’m working in, people always react in the same way to their list of corporate clichés (‘strategic plans’, ‘operational excellence’, ‘development opportunities’). They’ll laugh about them, roll their eyes at them, but often – try as I might – they’ll still go back to their desks and write them. Because if that’s the language of people at the top, for everyone else it becomes a badge of honour: it shows they belong. It’s not until a business stops using airy-fairy corporate speak that leaders see the difference language can make to an organisation’s culture.

Online retailer Zappos, which frequently tops the tables for employee satisfaction, has done a good job of translating what it wants to achieve into language that’s easy to understand. One of its core values is to ‘deliver wow through service’. Now, however cheesy that may sound, it’s definitely tangible. People get what they’re meant to do. They don’t have to translate it first. And because it’s easy to grasp, it’s a lot more efficient.

Concrete language also helps people understand what’s really going on. Back in 2010, the then CEO of Intel Paul Otellini explained developments in microprocessors by comparing them to the car industry, because it’s pretty hard to imagine what 32-nanometer process technology can do – even if you’re an engineer by trade. So Otellini compared it to how fast, and how cheaply, cars would travel if that sector had innovated at the same speed. All of a sudden, Intel’s achievements seemed a whole lot more impressive, and he gave employees every reason to feel proud of what they’d made happen.

At the other end of the extreme sits Deloitte. At the beginning of the year, Lucy Kellaway of the FT tore into the tone of a memo from Deloitte’s CEO, Punit Renjen. (Yes, it was internal; no, that didn’t stop people reading it outside of the business.) Let’s face it, phrases like Deloitte’s Journey Declaration don’t give the intended readers a particularly clear idea of what’s expected of them, or of where the business is headed. 

Concrete language makes us feel something 

There’s another reason why tangible words and phrases that conjure up a picture in our heads are better than corporate guff: they can make us more empathetic.

In their research, Murphy and Clark described how Delos M. Cosgrove, the CEO of Cleveland Clinic, turned the hospital’s performance around by using more emotive language. He made the change in  reaction to a patient’s daughter asking him, ‘What are you doing to teach your doctors empathy?’.  Her question made him realise that providing state-of-the-art treatment wasn’t enough on its own.

He gave people instructions as clear as ‘greet patients at every corner of the hospital’, and swapped the word ‘employees’ for ‘caregivers’; giving everyone who worked there a sense of what he expected of them. All of a sudden, people could connect their jobs with the clinic’s core values. And, when they did, the hospital saw their patient satisfaction scores climb.  

Distinctive language helps leaders get results

Back in 1980, Bill Gates shared his, very specific, vision of putting ‘a computer on every desk in every home’. It sounds ridiculous now because we’ve already got there. But at the time, nobody else was talking that way. By saying something distinctive and tangible, in clear language, people at Microsoft didn’t have any trouble understanding the vision and making it happen.

I doubt Microsoft will have similar results with its current mission, though. Their plan now is: ‘To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential’. I’ve no idea how I’d tackle that if I worked there.

Help your leaders shake off complicated ways with words

In his research about what motivates us at work, behavioural economist Dan Ariely found that we don’t get out of bed in the morning for our end-of-month pay packet alone. We want to feel connected to something bigger, to identify with whatever it is we’re doing and own it. If our day-to-day work feels a million miles away from whatever direction our leaders are heading, it’s meaningless.

When I work with leaders, and the people who write in their names, I get them to talk about their real work, real ambitions and feelings. And to do it in the most everyday language they can.

And, just as importantly, I encourage leaders to reject anything written in their name that sounds vague, or abstract, or wishy-washy. After all, it’s their personal brand at stake as well as the business’. And if you never meet your CEO, their words might be all you have to judge them on. 

Author Profile Picture
Georgina Bromwich

Writer and trainer at The Writer

Read more from Georgina Bromwich

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