Why war words in the workplace massacre morale

Going to war everyday? Peace out.
Going to war everyday? Peace out. Photo: iStock

I have previously written about the buzzwords everyone in the corporate world hates, but this took a tangent last week when I was having a coffee with Natalie Peters, a HR manager from Telstra Consumer.

The conversation shifted to the language we use in the modern workforce, and Nat commented that one of the things she still finds difficult to understand is the incessant use in the workplace of "war words".

"Why do we even need to use words like execute, blunt instrument and war room?" she asked me. "Words like these create the psyche that we're at war with each other. To me, work should be a place where employees want to go and collaborate. Not a place to go and hit each other with blunt instruments or wipe each other out."

Trenchant warfare

The conversation got me thinking, too. Phrases like 'smash through the opposition', 'killing it', 'guerrilla marketing' and 'bleeding edge', rolling off managers' tongues without any consideration of what these words or metaphors actually convey.

Two days later I was preparing to deliver a workshop for a large Australian bank and while I was being escorted to the training room, I walked past a senior executive's office. There, a beautifully framed quote on the wall from Sun Tzu reads: "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win".  

Do many leaders think we really are at war? Have we replaced battlefields with boardrooms and P&L reports? Have we exchanged guns and other weapons for verbal bullets in the form of war metaphors?

Countless management books quote military language and war heroes like Winston Churchill and George S Patton. In a recent artcle in the Harvard Business Review called The New Employer-Employee Compact, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman urges employers to rethink employee tenures as "tours of duty".

Heeding the battle call

Come on Reid, I am a huge fan of LinkedIn and I like the concept of putting employees on two-to-four-year contracts that are reviewed by both parties before renewing again. But does rephrasing employment contracts with terms like "tour of duty" really make employment seem engaging and exciting?

Words and phrases once specifically associated with combat on the Western Front are still a big part of our common language. In an article in the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes: "We barely recognise 'in the trenches', 'no man's land' or 'over the top' as figures of speech, much less as images that evoke what was once a novel form of organised mass death."

What are these words doing to our brains?

A 2007 study by Alzbeta Talarovicova looked at what negative words do to our brains. "If I were to put you into an fMRI scanner — a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain — and flash the word "NO" for less than one second, you'd see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters," she wrote. "These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.

"In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings and emotions. You'll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction."

Peace out

Kamal Sarma, the CEO of leadership coaching firm Rezilium and author of Win Win Conversations, works with leaders to help them reshape the language they use.

"Business was very much developed around war models, with war metaphors and words like deadlines and routing the enemy," Sarma says. "As a metaphor this is great, but it is not the right metaphor when you want to have great people who are highly engaged and driving value for the organisation. They are also definitely the wrong words to use if you want highly engaged customers.

"It is very important business leaders are aware of both the metaphors and the language they create in an organisation. We have spent the last 12 years researching why we use destructive and domination language in a world where people want to feel equal and inspired."

Sarma's research highlights the reason most people use these types of words is they have grown up hearing them at school and at home.

Here's a quick ready reckoner to help you (or your manager) translate war words into normal, everyday language:

Execute: No firing lines in the workforce please; let's 'implement' instead

Blunt instrument: Keep heavy objects with a flat or round end as a weapon out of the boardroom; replace with 'using force'

War room: Leave these for soldiers; instead set up an 'operations centre'

Militant: Replace with 'aggressive'

Burning platform: Part of business lexicon for all change managers, it seems; replace with 'challenge' or 'potential crisis'

Deadlines: People aren't dying; let's use 'deliverable' instead

In the trenches: Another one to leave to the soldiers; instead talk about 'experience'

Killing it: Doesn't sound that good for our neurons any more does it? Try 'amazing results'

Words matter

We don't think enough about the language we use everyday in the office and we also tend to replicate the words of other people we work with. Leaders of a bank I have worked with love the word 'burning platform'; a company I did some work for last year seemingly teaches its employees at induction to use 'taxonomy' daily; and I know a building company that must be remunerating its leaders on the number of times they can roll out 'execute' and 'in the trenches'.

Start to take notice of how many war words you or your managers use on a daily basis and try substituting them for more positive, engaging words. See if you notice a difference in the way you interact.

What 'war words' do you use without thinking about it? What words should be banned from your workplace?

twitter.jpg  Follow Andrew May

Comments