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Employer brand

How Corporate Language Defines Your Company Culture

Tobias Hardy

How Corporate Language Defines Your Company Culture

dictionariesThe words you choose as a company really do define how your employees see your enterprise.

The common saying, “You are what you eat,” isn’t only relevant when referring to health and fitness, psychologists and business leaders are discovering. The exact same can be said of language, meaning what you say and how you say it can have a measurable impact upon everyone in an organisation.

Ever since the 1960s – thanks in large part to Noam Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar – we as a society have believed that all humans basically think about things in the same way, despite the obvious outward distinctions between various language.

It turns out the idea was a bit off base – in reality, subtle differences in the makeup of the words we use have enormous influence over the way we actually perceive the world. This includes our conceptions of direction, power, agency and even gender.

Corporate leaders must realise that the power of language can either be utilised as an opportunity for creative motivation and talent attraction, or just as easily turn into an ideological roadblock that hinders growth and success. In other words, they must choose their words wisely.

Riding the Rails of Thought

Need a bit more context? A 2010 article from the Wall Street Journal illustrates just how interconnected language and perception actually are. In Pormpuraaw, an aboriginal community in Australia, the local languages include no directional words – e.g., “left”, “right”, “forward” – instead, relying exclusively cardinal directions to communicate something’s location.

Your computer isn’t in front of you, it’s “North” of you, or “Southwest,” (depending on which way you’re facing, of course). As a result, the locals have an incomprehensibly attuned sense of direction, at least to the Western eye.

Similarly, languages like English and Chinese take very different linguistic approaches when it comes to describing numbers, according to Malcolm Gladwell. The English system, as you may realise, is rather convoluted: we say eleven, twelve, and then inexplicably jump to thirteen and fourteen, but only until twenty, when we suddenly put the decade first (twenty one instead of one twenteen, or something).

Yet, in Chinese, number progressions are arguably much more logical – most Chinese number words are a single syllable, and larger numbers are formed via simple addition: 21 is literally “two ten one,” and 75 is, “seven ten five.”

As a result, Chinese children are much better at conceptualising numbers, and adults can remember longer strings of numbers than their Western counterparts. Is it mere coincidence that Chinese students are much more proficient in STEM subjects, as the Daily Mail reports? We think not.

Setting the Mood

More than numbers, linguistic differences can lead to profound differences in emotional understanding. For example, there’s an endless list of words that are untranslatable in English: the German word “fernweh” evokes the feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never yet visited; or the Georgian word “Shemomedjamo,” which describes the feeling when you’re incredibly full but end up eating your whole meal because it’s so delicious; or Torschlusspanik, the German word for opportunities that fade as you age.

Part of the reason we find these words so delightful and surprising is because we rarely, if ever, consider their possibility. Well, we’re asking you to. Realistically, no one expects your company to teach different languages or even introduce completely novel words into your corporate vocabulary. However, business leaders should be acutely aware of the powerful effects language can have.

Cultivating Allegiance

A WCG blog post illustrates the potency of well-chosen corporate value words. These are the words leaders choose to describe their missions, and they colour the interpretations and actions of every employee. Unsurprisingly, some of the most successful companies have inspiring, carefully selected value statements. From Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” to The Container Store’s brilliant “Man in the Desert” metaphor for effective sales, strong leaders have a unique ability to frame the work they do in intuitive, powerful ways.

And while selecting just the right words can be a somewhat ethereal endeavour, there are some lessons to be learned, courtesy of the same blog:

1. Negate the negative – you should always express what you like, not what you don’t like. One breeds clarity, the other confusion.

2. The language should “fit” your culture – a generic like “Integrity matters” can sound kind of bland and impersonal, but “Every little helps,” the chosen phrase of Tesco, is creative, unique and memorable.

3. Your words need a story behind them – stories have been around since the dawn of time, and if you want your company to last as long, you better figure out a compelling narrative.

Technology Talks

Just like any other element of a company’s employer brand, the wording of communications with potential hires and existing employers is key. Technology can make it much easier to present the culture of your organisation through language, whether you’re trying to attract the right candidates over social media or via job postings, want them to accept an interview opportunity or hope to convince them to take the job if and when you actually offer it to them.

For example, Textio helps your job posts stand out from the crowd, while ensuring they’re attractive and completely on-brand. The company claims that using its technology to optimise job ads boosts the number of applications by up to 20% – and it’s all thanks to syntax. Textio analyses the words you use in your ads and suggests better ways to say something in order to make it more attractive, and, therefore, more clickable.

Once you’ve attracted the candidate, it’s time to start using your language skills to build a connection with the talent. This extends beyond sending emails to invite them to an interview or selection day (although it’s important to ensure the wording here is reflective of the brand and situation, as well) and passes into the actual interview itself.

Video interviewing allows you to present the culture of your organisation through carefully planned questioning. Importantly, a pre-recorded video means there’s no chance that your brand image will change depending on who you’re talking to, as is often the case with face-to-face interviewing. Moreover, the medium allows you to ensure that your message is communicated in a clear, concise and open way, helping the candidate understand your organisation and absorb relevant information more effectively.

It can be difficult to choose the right words every time, but that’s not so important – the real lesson to be learned is that, by cultivating an awareness of the power of words, you can point to your limitations and grow from them.

(Main image credit: John Keogh/flickr)

Tobias Hardy

Tobias is a HR professional passionate about performance through engagement. He advises organisations on all aspects of recruitment process design with a particular focus on using technology to measure and overcome unconscious bias.