The individual’s whole experience is built upon the plan of his language.

– Henry Delacroix

When an Australian automotive manufacturer was acquired by a global organisation, a review of the local business was requested. During the review, the global organisation was keen to get an understanding of how the business communicated and interacted across all levels and engaged a number of established teams within the business to help assess the situation.

What the parent company was quick to realise was that there were major gaps in communication within its newly acquired business. Despite the tremendously structured nature of the business, internal teams were so disparate in their communication methods that they were unable to align their views or fully articulate their processes – it was as if they were speaking in different languages.

Linguistic relativity

This begs the question of communication. Can internal teams, communicating in different ‘languages,’ possibly do so effectively? This potential disconnect was described by engineer and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf as ‘linguistic relativity’ – where our view of the world is driven through the use of language.

Whorf describes language as a “pattern-system” which is built organically through continuous interaction established by our environment. A “pattern” can be applied to the framework of our language, but it also influences behaviours through repetition. As we adopt a specific language system, we also accept the norms and behaviours that are culturally attached to it.

When we think about organisational change, the notion of language is generally overlooked despite its importance to understanding behaviour. Interpretation is completely contingent on our own views and understandings. Meanwhile, our thinking and behaviour are driven culturally through our environment, which is drawn and solidified through our use of language within the workplace.

Signifier vs. signified

The ways in which different teams communicate will differ, even within the same organisation. It is wholly reliant on each team’s own cultural environment. Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure says that language, words and terminology can be broken down into two parts – the “signifier” and the “signified” or, more simply, “word” and “concept.” We need to remember just as different languages use different words for different things – the same applies to organisations. Even if we generically speak the same language, our words, terminology, and signifiers are entirely open to interpretation.

For example, specific industries tend to interpret terms differently. Abbreviations such as “BA” may mean “Buyers Assistant” or “Business Analyst” depending on the audience. “DC” could mean “Distribution Centre” or “Data Centre.” Words (in this case acronyms) are placeholders – or signifiers. They can only hold meaning – or become signified – through specific cultural constructs.

It’s problematic when a word with multiple meanings becomes relevant within a single organisation in different ways (while existing within segmented cultural confines). However, it can also present an opportunity for better understanding through greater learning.

Organisational change

In thinking back to the corporate takeover example, the solution stemmed from the ability of the different teams to immerse and adapt to the specific language systems used.

After spending several months on the shop floor and tracking the communications and processes, the parent company was finally able to adopt one language and as a result, one culture. The major benefit was in being able to speak naturally, and behave and interact within a new cultural context. They were able to alleviate reluctance to change based on continual interaction and mutual understanding. Therefore, a foundation of trust and sense of “belonging” was created through transparent and consistent, culturally aware communication – as teams began understanding, and speaking, the same language.

Culture is driven through communication. As such, transparency and communication need to sit at the forefront of any successful change initiative, with greater focus placed on language and how it is used within the organisation and its teams.

When using methodologies such as Agile, organisations should create a consistent language set as a way to establish common ground and facilitate discussion. The Agile Alliance has even created an official dictionary of words and terminology relevant and consistent to Agile based practices. This practice helps to shape norms, behaviours, and – eventually – culture.

There are immense benefits in being mindful of language and how it is used across all levels of the organisation. By understanding linguistic relativity, we are able to better explain thinking and behaviours as driven through the cultural environments in which specific teams work. This in turn helps to both explain and bridge gaps in effective communication.

The value in being able to communicate with consistency and in a common language is obvious. Interpretation will always be contingent on the perspective of the individual. That perspective is driven through culture. And that culture is constructed through the use of language. Sometimes the best way to understand others is to walk a mile in their shoes, or so the saying goes. Perhaps better yet though is to ensure you’re truly speaking the same language.