In a trice or in 14 years?

Last week I went to the dentist and he finished the visit saying 'See you in a year'. My response was 'Well, a year will pass in a trice'. This was a phrase that he'd never heard and I had to translate for him. Later that day I read an article on Language trends run in mysterious 14-year cycles. I concluded – because the dentist is much younger than me – that 'In a trice' is neither in the current cycle nor several past ones.

Then someone sent me a Guide to learning Mandarin –the civil servants' language. 'It is no accident that Whitehall officials are known as Mandarins. Their language is often as hard to understand as anything spoken in Beijing.' The guide has 11 lessons, the first opening with 'Mandarins always appear straightforward, friendly and helpful when offering an opinion, asking you to do something, and so on. Do not be taken in! The following translations will help you understand what they really mean.'

Here's one example 'Draft Please! means: Graft for hours producing a coherent and impressive letter so that I can fulfil my teacher-fantasy by needlessly amending it.'

The 10th lesson in the Guide is a masterclass by Lord Butler written in 2004. So, if the language of the Civil Service runs in 14 year cycles we can expect a revised lesson soon.

The thing about the 14 year cycles is that the researchers hypothesize that 'word prevalence … is related to changes in the cultural environment' but it could equally be that as word usage changes so does the culture. Think how many new words are added to the English language each year (see a 2016 list here) and how the UK culture is changing.

What this flurry of stuff on language reminded me of was the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey who in their book How the way we talk can change the way we work put the view 'The places where we work and live are, among other things, places where certain forms of speech are promoted or encouraged, and places where other ways of talking are discouraged or made impossible … these forms of speaking … regulate the forms of thinking, feeling and meaning making to which we have access, which in turn constrain how we see the world and act in it.'

In programmes like Yes Minister or In the Thick of it we can see the Civil Service world parodied. And in Scott Adams work we see the master of management-speak exposure. Most organisations and professions have their own language that regulates how speakers see and act in that world.

So can changing the organisational language help change a culture? I think maybe so as do Kegan and Lahey who take the view that leaders 'have exponentially greater access and opportunity to shape, alter, or ratify the existing language rules' and also that leaders 'have a choice whether to be thoughtful and intentional about this aspect of their leadership'. For example, Kegan and Lahey leaders could help change 'from the language of rules and policies to the language of public agreement'. They give 6 other types of languages and practical suggestions on how to change them.

But if leaders are not instrumental in changing the language as an aspect of changing the organisation, can it still be changed? I think it's worth trying (would it be easier in organisations where the mantra is 'everyone's a leader'?)

One of my colleagues drew up a list of words and phrases in common use that he felt constrained transformation and proposed trying to eradicate them in order to transform the organisation. By encouraging a community of people to talk and act a new language this might help bring about cultural transformation and perhaps in less than 14 years.

Do you have experience of conscious language change used to help transform your organisation? Let me know.

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