Language Matters

One of the largest shifts in team practice when people start to work remotely is how and where you hold your meetings. If you're introducing virtual meetings in your team, how you talk about them will matter. 

“There’s such a blame culture here. You would never hear that in Holland.”

My husband was just referring to the reporting some days ago that Marks and Spencer’s’ profits were down. In the words of the radio presenter, “they blamed the economy”.

Would our perception of taking responsibility been different if we’d heard “The economy has played an important role in the drop in profits.” Would that stop us from conjuring up images of M&S executives pointing outside their windows and pushing the responsibility for low performance to someone else? (Albeit an abstract “else”, the economy.)
This is just one example of how important our choice of words is and a reminder to be aware of how we talk about our work, about how we work with others and even how we describe the environment we work in.

(By the way, it turns out that my husband was right about the role that national culture plays in our use of language. The way in which English is constructed is conducive to us blaming each other. Check out point 2 in the TED article How Language Can Affect the Way We Think.)

Don’t Just Take it From Me

In “Teaming to Innovate”, Amy Edmonson describes how Julie Morath, COO at the Childrens’ Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota deliberately introduced new words to make it safe to talk about problems. She had recently observed how, when staff members were distraught by mistakes/accidents they were involved in, they avoided talking about the incidents, missing out on valuable learning opportunities.

During Morath’s ambitious mission to achieve 100% patient safety, she introduced “new ways of talking about safety lapses that would be less emotionally threatening”.

So “investigation” was replaced by “study”; “error” by “accidents” and “blame” gave way to “accountable”.

A very deliberate way of creating the conditions for psychological safety to emerge.

The “Virtual not Distant” Bit

As the use of technology continues to change the way in which people in organisations work together, I can’t help thinking that the language we use might block the transition. (And yes, I can see the irony when I often use the words “remote” or “virtual” to talk about teams that actually work quite closely together through very real, close collaboration, but that will resolve itself soon, I’m sure…)

While we keep talking about having “conference calls” when we mean “online meetings”, we’ll keep perpetuating the “I’m just there to listen” (or just as bad, “I’m just there to talk”).

A “conference call” still brings up images of people huddling around a spider phone in a quiet, empty room. An “online meeting” is something we can have at our desks, or from a café (please use your mute button), where we know that our presence is essential and valued.

By talking about “meetings” when we gather online, we increase the perception that we won’t achieve a collaborative experience when we meet online; a “conference call” is a one-many event; but meetings are not conferences, they are, well, meetings.  (I’m referring here to both video and audio meetings, our aim when getting together should be the same as if we were meeting in a room to talk, regardless of what medium we’re using to communicate.)

For those of us using video, we can now talk about meeting “face to face”, even if we’re not in the same physical location. In that case, should we start looking for other ways of referring to gathering together in the same physical space? In a recent discussion around this topic, someone mentioned that they call these gatherings “field trips”, because people are meeting at a third location.

“Chatting” retains its informal connotation whether we’re talking in person or via tech; but do we need to distinguish when we’re talking informally and when we go into more structured mode? (I would like to think not, but it will really depend on your team’s culture and set-up.)

For those teams that are 100% virtual, there might not be a need to pay attention to the language they use when getting together, as the assumption will be that people always gather online. However, in those cases when we’re making the transition to remote, or “office optional”, it’s worth paying attention to the words we use.

Making this transition does not just involve a deliberate approach to working with others through technology, it also involves a change in mindset. This change can be blocked by using language in a way that perpetuates the belief that collocated will always be better than remote. In some cases, yes, it will be preferable to be with our colleagues in the same physical space. But not always, so it’s worth giving online meetings a chance. 

(Please note the link to Teaming to Innovate is an affiliate link.)