HR & Management

Using the power of words to bring teams together

5 min read

01 July 2016

Leadership teams seem to love talking about corporate visions and values, but what do those words mean to the rest of us? Could you recite your company’s mission statement without looking it up, and do you really know what it means to you, and others you work with?

There’s lots of evidence out there to show that engaged companies, with strong cultures, are the healthiest, happiest and most profitable of them all. Yet, so many businesses struggle to get this right. As company’s grow, the founders’ visions get diluted and different teams start forming their own tribes, setting their own goals and working in their own ways. Over time those tribes even start inventing their own languages – buzzwords and acronyms that feel alien to other teams.

But language doesn’t have to divide businesses. Use your words well and they’re the simplest tool you have to bring teams together. So, how do you do it?

(1) Create a purpose everyone can picture

If you want people to get behind your purpose, they have to understand it in words first. Leaders often get struck down by the curse of knowledge. They know their own plans so well that they forget what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t share their understanding. 

Instead of speaking in a way that relates to their employees’ day-to-day working lives, they use complex, abstract language. They might impress the rest of their leadership team – a group who share the same knowledge – but they won’t do much to motivate everyone else.

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In fact, I’ve run lots of training sessions where the mere mention of a purpose or mission statement has set eyes rolling around the room. In just about every case the statement in question was vague or borderline nonsensical. Pledges to attain operational excellence, deliver some undefined value or achieve marketplace leadership just don’t do much to spark the imagination.

Instead, I’d try taking a leaf from NASA’s book. You’ve almost certainly heard the story of the janitor who told president Kennedy that he was “helping to put a man on the moon”. Now that’s a tangible purpose everyone can picture. And if everyone in your business can picture it, everyone can work towards it.

(2) A little jargon goes a long way

If having a common goal is a good way to start uniting your teams, having a common language will help you take things even further and bring that goal to life across everything. Writing a dictionary full of company acronyms isn’t the way to do it, though (if you need a phrasebook to understand your colleagues, something’s gone wrong).

Instead, a few choice words can do wonders for building a collective sense of identity. If you work for Google, for example, you’ll soon stop thinking of yourself as someone who works for Google and start calling yourself a Googler. It’s a nice word, you understand it straight away and it feels right.

(3) Set the tone

Simply changing the tone of a company’s voice – moving from something lofty and abstract to something concrete and clear – can make a big difference to how your employees see you. It’s also really practical because, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not, the chances are you’re writing every day. 

Think of it as “culture change by stealth”: by training teams to change the way they write, slowly but surely we change the way they think, too. And once teams understand what their business stands for and they understand each other, they soon start working together better, too.

Hannah Moffatt is a creative director at The Writer, a language consultancy. 

Maintaining a founding company culture within startups isn’t easy, especially when they begin to grow. So how can entrepreneurs ensure that their staff retain that entrepreneurial drive and innovative thinking that first set the company on the road to success?