27 September 2023

Why we need to choose our words carefully

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Lisa Earle McLeod* says trendy words and phrases bandied about on the internet are often used by people who do not know, or care, about their true meaning.

The language is always the telling point. The subjects we talk about and the words we choose tell our team, our organisation, and the world what’s important.

Changes in language often precede changes in priorities — a shift in wording is an early indicator that the landscape is shifting.

Nowhere is that more evident than social media — and in business that means on LinkedIn.

Every day, LinkedIn summarises trending topics. What companies are growing or shrinking? What news stories are getting forwarded?

What are recruiters, job seekers, and leaders looking for?

There are three phrases that keep bubbling up to the top of the list that I’m finding particularly irksome.

Here are the three phrases I’d like us to rethink.

Back to work

I know I’m not the only one who worked more during the pandemic.

As organisations dance between virtual, hybrid, and in-office models, the phrase ‘back to work’ is being bandied about a lot.

This phrase reveals an underlying belief (particularly with senior leaders) that working from home was not really working.

However, implying the last two-plus years have been a vacation from work undermines the ideas, value, and work a team has undoubtedly contributed (albeit, from their homes).

Using this language also discounts employees who are electing to remain remote indefinitely.

The more accurate phrasing here is ‘in-person meetings’ or ‘back to our offices’.

We know work happens everywhere; instead of back to work, if people really mean back to the office, that’s what we should be saying.

Quiet quitting

This one is the trendiest, most talked about phrase of them all.

My challenge with this wording is that there’s no clear definition.

In conversations with our executive clients, some people assume that quiet quitting means logging off from email at 6pm.

However, others (sometimes in the same organisations) think quiet quitting means refusing to exude an ounce of mental energy that isn’t required.

If quiet quitting means I’m going to reclaim some semblance of a normal life, perhaps it should be called, quietly normal.

When we’re talking about behaviour — everything from setting boundaries to complete disengagement — it’s more helpful to be specific, rather than lumping the quiet normal together with the people who have true disdain for the job.

Like a family

Undeniably, teams and organisations bonded through the course of the pandemic.

That’s a good thing, but to call your colleagues a family? Be careful.

Joshua Luna wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review.

He said: “While some aspects of a ‘family’ culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organisation’s culture as family-like can be more harmful than psychologically satisfying.”

This language is particularly troubling ahead of what many fear will be economic uncertainty.

Do people get laid off in a family? Do familial positions become redundant? No.

Branding your workplace as a family sets everyone up for heartbreak should tough decisions have to be made.

What we talk about, and the way we talk about it matters. Our words shape our beliefs and ultimately, our behaviour.

Suggesting that people haven’t been working, have their priorities out of whack, or that everyone is a happy family is only setting organisations up to fail.

It always starts with the words. Choose yours carefully.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com.

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