Why Language Matters to Organizational Culture

10.12.20 // Noah Brimhall

“Remove all the references to ‘employee’ in your slides and change to ‘team member.” That was the message I received a few years ago from Obility’s founder and President, Mike Nierengarten while preparing for a quarterly all-staff meeting. It seemed like a small change and so I updated my slides without giving it much thought. 

Over the next few months, I noticed that Mike would regularly correct anybody on the management or leadership team that used the term “employee”. And then he stopped having to correct us, “team member” was just part of the vocabulary of the company. I realize now that this change and the way Mike reinforced regularly was a part of a cultural change at Obility that helped us live up to our vision of “team members first”. 

Impact of Language at Obility

“Team member” implies a group working towards a common goal and equality among the members of that group. You care about people like you and that have a common purpose. Whereas “employee” implies a hierarchical relationship between owner and employee or supervisor and supervised. In an organization that thrives on teamwork and has a culture of collaboration, this change was very meaningful.

It may seem strange that the language we use when we talk about our processes and policies at a company has an impact on the culture, but I’ve seen this happen multiple times in my work. 

A few years ago I began my first steps to understand how implicit bias has an impact on hiring. As part of my research, I came across an article that argued that hiring for “culture fit” was the embodiment of unconscious bias. This article and numerous others argued for the concept of “culture add” – looking for the traits in a candidate that will bring something that your current work culture is missing. Since then, I’ve worked to ingrain this notion in how we hire. 

This has included challenging the hiring team anytime they use the term “good culture fit” or “poor culture fit”, but also has gone deeper and includes asking the hiring team “What can this candidate bring to the table?” and “What unique experiences does this candidate have?”. The language of “cultural fit” is still very present at Obility (by a 3:1 ratio in our recent communications vs “cultural add”) and that shows that we need to continue to work on both the mindset and language change.

Obility’s culture isn’t just about how we talk about our team or our candidates, it’s also how we talk about our services. We want to be partners that are interested in our client’s success. A quick way to erode that partnership is to be seen as a company that is just trying to sell them on something. That has led us to use the term “service expansion” instead of “upsell” when we talk to our clients about extending additional services to them.

Language and Culture at Large

Obviously, the idea that the words we use shape organizational culture aren’t unique to Obility. In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion about using more inclusive language and how that can support a culture that respects and includes people from diverse backgrounds. A classic example is finding alternatives to using “guys” to refer to a group of mixed-gender people. Personally, I prefer to use “folks” as a casual term since it feels familiar and easy-going, but I think “team” or “everyone” work for other circumstances and can be helpful when reinforcing other cultural values (collaboration and inclusiveness, respectively).

There are some terms that can have a negative impact on culture, but that are very common in startup and marketing circles. “Growth Hacking” is a term that is particularly common in how startups talk about marketing. While the basis for growth hacking (be data-driven, iterative testing, embrace limited resources) is admirable and can work, the term itself can lead to short-term thinking, stunts, and borderline unethical behavior, all of which can sacrifice sustainable growth.   

Sometimes words we think conveys one cultural message can actually be perceived in a way that is very unhelpful. “Disruption” has been a buzzword in startups for over 2 decades, but one study showed that it is the term that is most likely to make B2B Marketers question or doubt a vendor. While to a VC disruption shows that a startup that has found a way to overturn the conventional wisdom or is exploiting technology to re-think current business practices, to a purchaser it leaves the impression of instability, change, and willingness to leave behind customers that don’t match an “ideal customer profile”. That’s really the last thing you want from a vendor that you are trusting with an important aspect of your business.

Words Shape Perception and Influence Approach

There has been a lot of debate over history about language’s impact on how we think and how we perceive reality, but recently neurocognitive research is pointing to the impact of language on our brains. Some of this research has focused on how speakers of different languages view the world differently. For example, in the Russian language, there are two words for the color blue (light blue is “goluboy,” and dark blue is “siniy”) whereas in the Dani language of New Guinea there are only 2 terms for all color (“mili” for cold colors and “mola” for warm colors). While Dani speakers can distinguish between different warm colors (what we would call red, orange, and yellow), they don’t have the language to discuss them. 

“Languages do not limit our ability to perceive the world or to think about the world, but they focus our perception, attention, and thought on specific aspects of the world.” – Antonio Benítez-Burraco  (emphasis mine)

It is important to consider the language we use as we hire, work with our team, and sell to our clients in an agency. Language’s power to focus is the reason why it is important to choose carefully the language we use and to make those choices reinforce the aspects of an organization’s culture that we want to encourage and emphasize. 

Another example of the power of language comes up when we describe the economic situation of a country. If we describe it as “stalled” we will tend to think of short-term solutions that “jump-start” the economy, but if we talk about an “ailing” economy we will tend to think of long-term solutions that “heal” the economic situation. 

“Subtle linguistic differences and figures of speech can frame our approaches to difficult problems.” – Mitch Moxley

Perception and Approach Applied

To apply this idea of perception and approach to examples at Obility, we both perceive a “team member” differently than an “employee” (seeing them as an equal and part of the same group working towards a common cause) and are more likely to approach a difficult situation with an alternate approach (collaborative problem solving vs. blaming or punishing undesirable behaviors). 

The same goes for “cultural add”. We will perceive a candidate’s differences from our experience at Obility as positive and look for ways to integrate and capitalize on those differences to enhance our culture rather than perceive them as a divergence from the norm that needs to be kept out of our culture. 

Perception and approach as a response to language also matters to the recipient of the language, not just those who deliver it. For our clients, hearing the term “service expansion” brings to mind a trusted partner looking to provide the services necessary to meet their goals. This makes them likely to react positively to that with openness and work towards a common understanding of what is necessary to meet their goals. When they hear the term “upsell” they immediately perceive us as a service provider trying to “sell” them on a possibly unnecessary new cost. This can cause them to react with concerns about the impact on their budget. 

As we consider the language we use it is important to understand how it will shape people’s perceptions of the organizational culture and impact the action they take that will impact the experience of that culture. The language we use even shapes our own perceptions and actions. Leadership must review the language they use in hiring to look for problematic or biased language. Supervisors have to choose their words with care while working on initiatives of cultural importance to an organization and in their everyday work. Sales and marketing teams have to be prepared to adjust the way they describe their products and services to match the perception they hope their customers, clients & prospects will have. 


About Noah Brimhall

Noah Brimhall is Director of Services at Obility where he leads the Paid Search, Paid Social & SEO teams. Prior to joining Oblity, Noah was SEO Manager at Hewlett-Packard, where he oversaw improvements in traffic from organic search. Like all Portlanders, in his spare time, Noah makes cider, gardens, cheers for the Timbers and rides his bike. View all Noah Brimhall’s posts >