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Watch your language! (It shapes company culture)

December 3, 2021 - 7 min read

person sticking notes on window - company language

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Reinforcing company language through processes and rituals

Language impacts the way we feel about work

The way we think about work is broken

Although we may not realize it, language and the specific words used within your company on a regular basis have a major impact on your company’s culture.

The language you use acts as a moral compass for your people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations.

Some examples include the language used in your company’s mission, purpose and values statements, but also in company mottos, both old and new. In this way, HR and the executive level can play an essential role in shaping and influencing the kind of culture you’d like to create.

Consider Facebook. In 2014 it changed its motto from “Move fast and break things” to the much less sexy, “Move fast with stable infrastructure.” Though it may seem like a small change, this signaled a big step in the company’s maturation.

While initially Facebook greatly valued its young hacker roots, it later realized that the bugs created through this type of work ethic were actually causing more problems in the long run, making it more difficult to provide quality service to its users. In changing its company motto, it aimed to guide the way in which its people worked and approached problems at the company.


Reinforcing company language through processes and rituals

Language doesn’t just impact the way people behave at work, it also impacts the types of processes and company rituals we create.

For example, Zappos is known for the extreme lengths to which its customer service reps have gone to make its customers happy. Unsurprisingly, its number one core value is to “Deliver WOW through service” and its mission is “delivering happiness to customers, employees, and vendors.”Through its mission and values, Zappos tells its people that the number one indicator of a job well done is customer happiness. As a result, 75% of its business comes from repeat customers.

This strong customer-focused language is backed by the types of processes and rituals it has created.

Reinforcing its commitment to delivering quality service, Zappos has all new hires undergo a vigorous 4-week customer service training program. After this, it famously offers each participant $4,000 to quit.

Through this seemingly unconventional onboarding process, the company demonstrates that its first priority is to hire people who will not only uphold but also fit into the Zappos mindset.

Company language impacts the way we feel about work

Language doesn’t just impact how we work, it can also change how we feel about work. In psychologist Barry Schwartz’s TEDTalk, The way we think about work is broken, he explains that institutions aren’t necessarily shaped by human nature, instead, “We design human nature by designing the institutions in which people live and work.”

The way we think about work is broken


The factory lines of the past were based on the very simple exchange of money for output. Indeed, the definition of the term ‘employee’ is based on this exchange:

"A person working for another person or a business firm for pay."

To actually design an engaging culture, the employer-to-employee relationship should go beyond this.

self actualization - company language

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs employers that simply focus on payment as a means of compensation for their employees’ work are only meeting their basic psychological needs for food, water, warmth, and safety. According to his theory, motivation to reach these needs decreases as those needs are met. Therefore, in this type of environment, you can only expect employees to give the minimum they need to in order to earn enough to fulfill those basic needs.

maslows hierarchy of needs - company language

However, people don’t just want to fulfill their basic needs. Once people are reasonably able to meet the first four "deficiency needs" they can begin to focus more on their "growth need." Everyone has a natural desire to reach one's full potential or self-actualization. Even people who are still struggling with deficiency needs also have this need for growth and meaning — they may have less time, energy, or resources to pursue it.

Unlike our deficiency needs, motivation to reach this need only increases, leading us to seek more experiences in which we can learn and grow.

We will spend most of our lives at work and it can and should be a place where we can go to develop, perform and improve.

For this reason, some companies have completely dropped the word "employee" from their vocabulary. Instead, to create an engaging work culture, many newer or more progressive companies deliberately use the word "people" to close the distance that "worker" or "employee" creates. For example, Netherlands-based Impraise's mission read, “Empower the people that empower people.”

Words alone don't make a people-centric company. But it's a good start. It reminds HR and others to design engaging processes that enable their people to learn and develop. It reminds them that they need to support managers with the tools they need to coach their team in their journey towards personal growth.

Connect company language to meaningful action

For individuals, nothing is more empowering than opportunity, clear guidance, meaningful feedback, and the tools to succeed. Managers sometimes need a little help in knowing how to provide that to their teams.

BetterUp offers a range of opportunities to help leaders, and their people, grow personally and professionally.  Learn more about how to set your business and your people up for success.

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Published December 3, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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