Don't just change your culture - hack it!

Does your company’s language support the culture?

How language impacts culture

Have you ever noticed how your language changes depending upon who you spend a lot of your time with? Having lived in many different countries I am always astounded at how quickly my language changes.

Take a simple item like trainers (the UK name for running shoes); they become sneakers in the US, tackies in South Africa and runners in Australia. I remember visiting Australia for the first time and seeing a poster up in the gym shower area that read ‘please wear your thongs when showering’; you can imagine my puzzled expression as thongs in England are women’s skimpy underwear!

A company’s language is a leading indicator of its culture

Language can really show what a culture is all about. Is the language negative or positive? Is it masculine and macho or feminine? Do people curse a lot? Are they using respectful language and saying please and thank you? How do the leadership team talk to each other? Corporate cultures are full of these language identifiers.

Have you ever noticed how your corporate culture uses language? Listen carefully and you will start to spot your own cultural language and whether it supports a good culture or even a bad one.

We used to refer to our Business Owners as Franchisees. Many companies might feel this is perfectly acceptable but in our bid to try and bring our Business Owners closer into our culture we decided to re-brand them as Business Owners and not Franchisees, we felt as Business Owner sounded more respectful and signified that they were important to us. Franchisees felt more like an ‘us and them’ culture. The same went for our Suppliers, who became Partners and our Staff who became Team. We also renamed our Head Office to Support Office to make its purpose clear, which is to support the front line teams and our Business Owners.

The language culture hack

Even though we made a decision to change our language many people were finding it hard to change their habits, so we decided to put in a consequence for people who used the words! We created burpee words! We created a list of words that we felt were not representative of our culture and then published them on posters and put them up all over the office. We even made a video to show people what would happen if ‘Danger Man’ heard you using a danger word! OK, this was just a fun way to get the message across to our people:

As always it’s important that leadership take the lead when looking to change culture. Along with my Heads of Department, we committed to doing a burpee every time we made a blooper. The rule is that regardless of where you are, if you say a wrong word you must perform a burpee. You can imagine how hilarious this became when Management were having to perform burpee in meetings, corridors, restaurants, on stage at our national conference and even in the aisle of airplanes! Our teams had never been so alert in meetings, listening carefully trying to spot a burpee word being inadvertently dropped by their boss.

Videos and photos of team members performing burpees became daily email circulars, even our Partners (aka suppliers but it’s a burpee word) joined in and started to adopt our language. We are now 2 years down the line and it’s pretty rare for someone to drop a burpee word.

Zappos replacement words

Great culture companies choose their words carefully.

Great culture companies choose their words carefully.

Last year I took some of my team to visit the Zappos corporate office and learn from one of the best culture companies around today. If you haven’t yet heard of Zappos, I highly recommend you Google them and their boss Tony Hsieh. They really are blazing the trail in building a great corporate culture.

Whilst I was taking the tour around their offices, I noticed a poster on their wall titled ‘replacement words’. It struck me that they must have also gone through this process and that we had both engaged similar solutions to change how our company language is used by our teams.

Don’t underestimate the power of language and how much it influences those around you. Don’t let your culture be enslaved to terminology that doesn’t serve the culture you want to build. Put your language guide rails in place so everyone knows the right way to talk and support a great culture.

Want to culture hack your company’s language?

Follow these steps to get started

  • Get your Hackers (Culture Team) together.
  • Identify the words you all feel don’t fit with the culture, ask others for their thoughts and compile a list.
  • Publish the list all over your office, launch them at your meetings and send an email list to all.
  • Attach a consequence; maybe it’s a silly move, funny outfit or a gold coin donation to charity.
  • Leadership must go first and set the example for the rest to follow.
  • Don’t let anyone off the hook! This is important so as not to lose momentum.
  • Make it fun! Take photos, videos and celebrate when someone completes a consequence.

Have a question? Feel free to send me a message and I’ll do my best to help.

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  1. Tetteh Kofi

    What a fun and fresh way to address an old challenge (nearly said problem #burpee). People take their language for granted but as you say it reflects and creates the organisations culture. Great post with top tips. Thank you

  2. elainejobson

    Hey Tetteh

    Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post:)

    Best regards

  3. Andy

    Really interesting blog
    Language drives everything and is so powerful. Creating culture change can seem challenging yet what could be simpler than changing what you say.
    Great fun burpee blooper, live it

    • elainejobson

      Thanks for your comment Andy, language really is such a simple place to start with culture change.

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