The Transformative Power of a Common Language

By Jake Friedman, Consultant

I recently conducted my first in-person meeting with a client since early March. It was a “Rollout”, our term for the meeting where we help a client introduce their Fundamentals to the entire company. (For those of you who are new readers of our blog, Fundamentals are the behaviors that an organization uses to define its culture, the things that they say are “fundamental” to their success.)

After the rollout, the CEO kindly invited me to join his team for lunch. While we ate, we went around the room and in turn each person gave one “take-away” from the Rollout meeting. One of the participants commented that while the Fundamentals covered ideas that many employees likely already knew were important, explicitly defining a set of behaviors with a title and description for each gave the whole organization a common language that she felt was incredibly powerful. From now on, instead of struggling to put words to these important practices, and perhaps misinterpreting what each other meant, everyone would be on the same page. She was excited to see the impact this common language would have.

The benefits of a common language

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a comment like that. In fact, we’ve even written about this very topic in this space before. But it struck me just how timely the idea of an organization having a common language is.

At a time when elements of our society are struggling to understand each other, when employees of different backgrounds and experiences might interpret interactions in different ways, it is crucial that as a leader, you give your people the tool of a common language to talk about daily actions and expectations.

The benefits of a shared language are that it helps eliminate confusion and misunderstandings, and provides a foundation of common ground for every conversation. Instead of using words or phrases loaded with meaning pulled from one’s upbringing or prior work experience, which other’s might not relate to, employees use language that you’ve chosen intentionally and teach consistently, ensuring that everyone has the same understanding.

Create a common language through behaviors, not values

In our experience, it’s vital that you use behaviors, not conventional values, to create your common language. The difference is that while a typical value is a notion or belief (think something like Quality, Integrity, Teamwork, or Respect), a behavior is an action, something that your people do. For example, some of the behaviors we practice in our own company are things like Honor Commitments, Practice Blameless Problem-Solving, Listen Generously, and Get Clear on Expectations.

The reason this difference is so important is because just by their nature, values are often vague, and thus can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Take Respect, for example. Growing up in the northeast, I was never taught to say “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” to adults. It wasn’t until I joined the Army and was stationed down south that I began to say that (a lot!) It’s not like as a kid I was being disrespectful, it’s just that in the culture of the northeast that’s not how we demonstrate respect.

In comparison, a behavior is much more specific. The additional level of clarity eliminates the multiple interpretations that values often have. And because behaviors are actions, they’re far easier to teach, coach, and give people feedback on.

To be clear, I’m not saying that values aren’t important. The client I referenced at the beginning of this piece has a meaningful set of core values that they truly believe in. They aren’t words slapped together by a marketing team or a poster on the wall that’s paid lip service, they’re real.

Even still, as the employee commented, it wasn’t until they defined the culture in terms of behaviors that they finally reached the level of clarity necessary to create a common language.

If you’d like to learn more about how to create a common language in your organization by defining you culture in terms of behaviors, just give us a call, watch the 4-minute video on our homepage, or click the button below.

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