Actually, They’re Not Headcount, They’re People – by Liz Ryan

A few years ago, some of the kids in our local high school fell into the unfortunate habit of referring to negative things and their least-favorite people using the modifier “gay.”

“Oh, your teacher lost your test and you have to do it over?” they’d say. “That’s gay.”

The gay-means-bad meme wasn’t confined to our neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. It was (and may be still) a nationwide trend in the U.S., and the subject of newspaper articles, blog posts and talk show commentary.

It seems to me that kids have gotten better about using the word “gay” to signify bad things, and not a moment too soon. My middle-schooler tells me that he knows several gay kids in his class.

How harmful would it be to gay kids (and adults, for that matter) to have the word “gay” commonly used as a throwaway term for “sucky?” In response to the gay-is-negative trend, ads and speeches implored kids to stop using “gay” as a synonym for “bad.”

We know that language has power. Yet every day in the business world we read, speak, write and toss around business terms that are no less powerful in their impact than a teenager’s thoughtlessly pejorative use of “gay.” Sadly though, the tortured, damaging use of business language to marginalize and diminish people at work hardly even registers as a topic for business conversation.

Fledgling businesspeople quickly pick up the language of business. They sip it with their morning coffee until it takes over their brains and oozes out their fingers on the keyboard. They learn to write like drones and remove any trace of emotion or passion from their official correspondence.

Business language isn’t just a less colorful way to describe human things. Corporatespeak is as much a symbol and tool of corporate culture as spells and Quidditch are elements of the culture at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Corporatespeak language is the hallmark of a worldview that treats numbers, rules and algorithms as sacred, and human emotions as tawdry and unbusinesslike. To be human, in the Godzilla world of formal-for-its-own-sake protocols and hierarchy, is to be soft. When I was an HR chief, I got accustomed to the insult “What do you know about business? You’re an HR person, the least businesslike person in the room. Stop whining about the team and the mojo level – you’re embarrassing yourself.”

Eventually, I saw that the easy use of soulless, robotic corporatespeak is a central part of the structure of fear and control that sucks so much human power out of organizations. When we call people “headcount,” we turn them into cells on a spreadsheet. It’s easier to treat people like objects when we label them that way.

My former CEO, Ray, wouldn’t let his managers use the term ‘headcount.’ “They are not headcount,” Ray would say. “They’re people.”

We won’t get to the Human Workplace until we change the glossary for life at work. When we stop talking about Headcount, Human Capital and Contingent Staff Ratios, we can begin to remember that we are people first and employees afterward.

We won’t get any smarter, more resilient or more productive by stuffing our manuals and reports with brainless business jargon. We won’t get any closer to finding our voices and our power until we can talk honestly about fear and trust, the stress we feel at work and the energy in the room. Corporatespeak has no place in that conversation.

Robotic business language is like the invasive plant species kudzu. It takes over vibrant, living things, envelops them and chokes the life out of them. It keeps green things and new ideas from growing.

If you want to shift the culture at your workplace, start with the language. Put a human voice in your employee handbook. Ask your youngest, least-tainted employee to rewrite every policy until it sounds as though a human being created it. Lose the passive voice (“It has been decided”) and speak to your employees and colleagues the way humans speak to one another. Your voice will get stronger, then. People might bring themselves to work once you prune the kudzu that squelches passion and stifles teamwork and momentum.

We don’t have to sound like zombies and robots at work. It is not good business to do that – it’s not professional, in the sense of giving our best to our customers and friends. Once you begin to put a human voice in your business, you’ll see the robot culture recede and human spark come roaring back.

Remember though: corporatespeak is pernicious. If you want to get rid of it, you have to tear it out by the roots, and work to prevent its return.

 
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