Worldview and language

The Organisation Design Forum (ODF) had an Advisory Board conversation last week (14 August), discussing the questions:

  • How have you seen different worldviews (a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint) shape the organization design work that you do? What did you do to help manage where there were differing world views between the client and consultant, or among the people directly involved in the design work?
  • How has language impacted the organization design work that you do? What have you done to help ensure alignment when language has had an impact on the direction or development of the design work?

The broadcast + chat box text are available here .

They’re questions that provoke more questions, rather than any answers and in the last couple of days since the conversation I’ve been noticing instances of different world views and language.   Four I came across stand out:

My pronouns are:  One that caught my attention was someone putting in his signature block ‘My pronouns are he, his, him’, which I hadn’t seen before. I found out that there’s a whole movement to do this and I wonder what impact it will have on organisation culture (and design).

I see, indicating my prounouns  shows ‘an important move towards inclusivity’.  The question then is – if someone doesn’t conform in putting their pronouns in their signature block, how is that judged by others and could not putting your pronouns in your signature block result in being ostracised for not conforming – which says what about inclusivity?

The global gag on free speech is tightening: The Economist this week in its leader ‘Speak up’,  and a longer, related article, ‘The new censors’ tackles the question of free speech and how it is being eroded.   The article mentions Freedom House, ‘an independent watchdog organisation’, which reports:

‘The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack … The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.’

I interpret these issues of free speech as being part and parcel of worldview and language use and it’s not a leap from here to see how worldview and language use help shape and design societies.

At a more local level language use and worldview undoubtedly does impact organisation design work too, but they are not aspects that I’ve seen discussed much in organisation design work.  But they are material.

There are many discussions considering ‘silent stakeholders’ e.g. the environment, future generations, sustainability, etc in organisation design work.  Our worldviews of the silent stakeholders and the language we use with/about them have an impact on the way we design.  See an article Stakeholders’ impact on the environmental responsibility: Model design and testing, and another,  thorough,  research article, The Stakeholder Model Refined, that proposes a different language (and worldview?)  of stakeholders.

Suppose when we were doing stakeholder mapping and analysis we added concepts like ‘gradism’ or ‘HQ/Operations’ or ‘agile methodology language’ and really examined them for their power and influence on the design work – would it result in useful conversations and closer examination of (perhaps assumed) worldviews and language that (maybe) favours one type of organisation design over another?

The new language of the future of work: In the ODF discussion I mentioned a book I’d read a review of on internet language ‘Because Internet’.  The book appears to speak to an emerging worldview both of internet communities and the internet language that shapes their design and culture. The reviewer notes, ‘The “in-group vocabulary” of internet language and memes isn’t just inclusive; its ability to induce a “rush of fellow-feeling” often relies on excluding an out-group, too.’

Richard Baldwin, in an article talks about his new lexicon of work – globotics, telemigrants, white-collar robots.  He says that ‘this wave of globalization doesn’t have an immigration debate attached to it.  It’s about moving people’s capabilities without moving people. These telemigrants are coming for service jobs and a wall won’t stop them! It’s good news if you want to keep out migrants because you can have the work without the workers’.

Does language shape the flow of time? This article notes that ‘when we talk about time, we frame it in terms of space. English speakers look “forward” to good times ahead and leave the past “behind”. A day flies by just as a ball does, while a deadline approaches the same way a tiger might. But the spatial metaphors we use vary from language to language, and some people think those differences affect our perception of time.’

The article pointed me towards Lera Boroditsky’s TED video ‘How language shapes the way we think’.   The point she makes is that ‘people who speak different languages will pay attention to different things, depending on what their language usually requires them to do.’

Seeing this, I remembered that the same point is also made by Robert Kagan and Lisa Lahey in their book How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation .   They say ‘The words we use do more than represent feelings and attitudes. The very choice itself of one word or expression over another can determine feelings and attitudes and – most importantly – actions’

This matters in organisation design work.  If we believe that language choices shape actions, and we believe that designing is taking action, then we need to pay attention to the words we use and the words others use, because how we use the words will shape our designs.

Where these four aspects of worldview and language led me, is to thinking that we (designers), and our clients,’would benefit from taking the time to reflect on our worldview and language before we start to design or redesign – this is even more critical in international organisations.

Let’s really think about the language we use.  What, worldview, for example does the language of agile, lean, or TQ represent?  Do we really want to exercise power by ‘getting people to buy-in’, (see Marie McKendall’s article The tyranny of change: Organizational Development revisited) or be in a ‘chain of command’?   I wonder what a considered, curious and critical discussion on the ethics and implications of worldview and language would yield in terms of doing our organisation design work.

Boroditsky concludes her TED talk saying: ‘It’s about how you think. It’s how the language that you speak shapes the way that you think. And that gives you the opportunity to ask, “Why do I think the way that I do?” “How could I think differently?” And also, “What thoughts do I wish to create?”  ‘

What thoughts do you wish to create in doing your organisation design work?  What worldview and language inform the way you do it?  Let me know.

Image: Testing a worldview, Anthony Gormley 1993