Managerial Linguistics

By Tom Peters

Our language patterns are the best indication of our priorities and prejudices. Study your and your colleagues' phrases and jargon, and you will get a true bead on your actual business practices and beliefs. In fact, if we can learn to meticulously observe ourselves, we will be taking a big step toward more effective management of change.

For instance, at a recent seminar discussion about fostering innovation, all participants agreed that in order to enhance rather than suppress corporate entrepreneurial zeal, it is essential to offer regular, public support to those who step out and take even small risks. But I was put on guard by one person's seemingly innocent suggestion—that managers "take time out of their schedule to recognize innovative, risk-taking actions."

This statement captured my frustration during recent years about the slowness of well-intended change programs. The phrase, "take time out of their schedule," touched a new nerve. Just what is this "schedule"? What is this encompassing thing that at best we can "take time out of"? The language suggests the thing has a life and logic of its own, which we violate at our peril. We fear taking time out of the thing, breaking the thing's iron grip.

The language in this case precisely speaks to a major problem. Our schedules as managers are, in fact, somewhat randomly booked by a largely unseen bureaucracy. The real world—our top, strategic priorities—must be squeezed to fit into vacant nooks, if any, of the voracious beast called "the schedule."

What does this beast demand of us? That we perform perpetual administrative chores; that we attend continual committee meetings in order to review endless presentations; that we coordinate this and that; that we attend meetings to prepare for other meetings. The conscientious secretary is de facto charged with booking meetings until there's no space left on the calendar. Only then will we have fully met our obligation to "the schedule." In one buttoned-down firm, the secretary goes so far as to type little three-inch-by-five-inch cards listing the next day's meetings and places them on the desks of all the managers before they arrive each morning. That way, the managers can push their mental transmissions into cruise control and chug off to meetings numbers 2,872 through 2,882.

If we agree, though, that our top strategic priority is, say, more innovation, and that the best way to manifest this concern is by visibly recognizing innovators, is wringing a drop or two of time out of "the schedule" the right mindset? Shouldn't recognizing innovators (or calling on customers, suppliers, and franchisees) be the wheat, and the other stuff—the endless meetings and administrative activities—be the chaff? Shouldn't our language be exactly the obverse of what it is? Shouldn't managers say to would-be meeting givers, "I'll see if I can take time out of my store, factory, supplier, customer, and innovation team rounds to attend your meeting?"

Managers seem to act as if they get paid by the meeting. I wish instead that they'd act as if they were paid by the number of customers they visit and the stops they make to chat with quality teams and would-be innovators.

Listen to yourself and your colleagues carefully. You may think you believe these premises, but do your words and actions truly reflect them? To what extent do you act and speak as if you were tied to and trapped by an inanimate schedule, resistant to all common-sense efforts to change?

Our language conveys what is important and what's not; our truest priorities. It also gives away our deepest beliefs about people. Later in the seminar, we discussed developing a succinct statement of business values. One participant proposed a limit of two basic values. Why? "They can only handle two," he averred.

Here we go again. "They?" I happen to agree with the limit of two basic values, but for a very different reason. We can only live by and propound two. "We" are the problem, not "they."

The "they" language is so denigrating. An even worse term that I hear very frequently is "my people," as in "I'll get 'my people' to do this or that." As former Dana Corporation Chairman Ren McPherson once said, "'My people?' Who in the heck do you think you are? You don't own those people. They don't belong to you. They're not yours. If anything, you belong to them. If they work like the dickens and care about the product, then you get rich." Right on.

Here's another typical seminar-ending vow by senior managers: "I'm going to go back and really pump my people up! Do "they's" come with little valve stems on their right forearm? Is that how you "pump" them?

I do not believe any of the above linguistics stem from maliciousness. Our phrases often belie our stated intentions, but they reflect long-term habits of mind and day-to-day practice and thus drive our actions. The automatic response to pleas for endless meetings eventually determines our "schedules." The people who work in the distribution center or reservations desk—those "they's" and "my people" who we think will respond to "pumping"—eventually act the part, to our detriment.

Listen closely to your peers. Ask them to listen closely to you. Our use of language is subconscious, yet it presents the unbiased reading of our true beliefs and our true priorities. What does your language, and that of your peers, reveal?


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