First day at your new job – and something just don’t sound right
It’s Day One in your new company and you’ve hit the ground running. Introductions, conversations, meetings… you’re absorbing information, getting a feel for the place, meeting some great people. But something else is happening. Today, and for the next few weeks only, you’re aware of the strange way this organisation speaks. Your new company operates the same sector as your last place, but it all sounds different. You’re hearing new acronyms and a bit of unfamiliar jargon (that’s ok, you can soon find out what that means) but it’s more than that. It’s not that your new colleagues use different words for concepts familiar to you. They’re actually talking in a weirdly different way – they refer to familiar processes or customer groups strangely, they highlight odd things, and some terms you’d expect to hear just never crop up. You might realise gradually that they are actually working with different concepts, chopping up tasks and issues into different categories, painting unfamiliar pictures of a familiar landscape. It’s the world, Jim, but not as you knew it.

The way we do things round here
The language you are hearing today provides clues through which you will begin to understand – only semi-consciously, and pretty rapidly if you’re to survive and thrive – the unspoken culture of the organisation. Things like what really matters round here, who our customers are and what we actually think of them, what the role and purpose of the organisation is, what we are really here to do. These unspokens sit beneath everything the organisation does and help keep it recognisably the same organisation, even as people join and leave. The internal discourse or narrative of an organisation is invisible scaffolding holding the culture up and keeping it in shape. This scaffolding is at its most tangible to you today – but this will only last for a while. After a few weeks you will be talking the same way like an old-timer – and will be operating effortlessly within the rules of thumb and taken-for-granted truths embedded within that language.

We help organisations use language strategically by enabling them see and hear their own habits again, just like you can today, on your first day. We might, for example, uncover an all-pervasive organising metaphor, or a hidden narrative, or another distinctive and consistent structure. One of our clients operated constantly in relation to their users with a ‘war’ metaphor. It felt totally normal – they didn’t notice it at all until we showed to them – but they immediately recognised it was deeply unhelpful to the culture change and business objectives they were trying to achieve.

Language is action. Saying IS doing
Saying is not the opposite of doing. Saying IS doing. Saying is constructive; it builds and sustains things – social structures, power relationships, ‘truths’. What your new organisation is doing, collectively, is creating and re-creating an entirely coherent but idiosyncratic conceptual model of the world.

Why should this matter to you? It matters because language makes ephemeral things solid and real – and in organisations it makes things happen, and it stops things from happening. It’s hard to think the unsayable – so innovation can be constrained by existing language. You also can’t hear the unthinkable – you may not really hear what consumers are telling you in research, because it’s hard to fit it in with the implicit frameworks and narratives you are all working with internally. It’s also highly likely (we see this again and again) that your internal language leaks out subtly into your external communications. It’s not a question of letting expert talk or jargon cross into consumer-facing materials; it’s leakage of more subtle, embedded assumptions that matters, often about customers and the way you see your relationship with them.

I have free will. I can say what I want.
‘But’ – you say, not unreasonably – ‘We are all free-thinking and creative people, able to make our own choices about how we think and how we talk. Our language is not constrained by anything’. Yes, but. Shared habitual language acts like a well-trodden path across a grassy hillside. It’s not that you can’t strike out across the long grass and into the woods, but most people don’t. It’s not only easier to go the same familiar way but, if you thought about it, you’d assume that the path must be there for a reason; ten thousand muddy-booted corporate ramblers before you can’t all be wrong. And of course mostly we don’t think about it, because we tend to believe that saying is not the same as doing. We feel that language is a transparent neutral medium through which we express ideas that somehow exist elsewhere. But language IS the ideas and IS action. So – change the language and you open up the space for quite different ideas, and fresh things to do.

Ah – but we have a strategy to think differently. It’s all written down and agreed
You’re a Challenger brand. You know what you’re trying to do – be different, break the rules. You have a clear strategy that’s agreed and written down. Surely that stops us falling into old ways, thinking the same old thoughts? In our experience bad things happen even to nice smart well-prepared people when invisible-but-powerful forces of language are at work. This is especially so when you’re a long-established company or brand. Habitual language, and the thinking that it fossilises, was once useful and adapted to the market conditions of the day. But it hangs around long after it has ceased to provide useful frameworks for thinking. Another organisation we worked with was steeped in a culture in which regulation and authority ruled. We noticed that (amongst many examples of regulation-talk) the place which scanned customer application forms was called the ‘Document Control Unit’. It didn’t control them, it just scanned them – but control was important and high status, and somewhere along the line someone felt that’s what it should be called. On one level this didn’t matter at all – but on another it served to perpetuate a culture once useful and appropriate, but now getting in the way of strategic objectives.

So, a market environment changes, but an organisation’s language doesn’t, because no-one can hear it. Except the new recruits, and they are not about to make a noise; they are too busy working out how to fit in and start being effective in this strange new world.

OK – so what can I do?
If you’re a Challenger brand – or if you’re trying to create a Challenger culture –– you can help yourself to change what you’re doing by looking hard at what you’re saying. The trick is to find a way to notice it again, just like on your first day, then you can make some conscious decisions about what you do with it. They say the fish are the last to notice the ocean; you have to find a way to see, taste and smell your ocean – then you have some choice about where you swim next.

Gill Ereaut is the founder of Linguistic Landscapes