I’ve been attending a multi-day meeting via video conference. What’s become apparent across a series of presentations is how much we rely on militaristic language to convey our thoughts and, presumably, gain agreement. I heard terms like “mobilizing an army” “executing the plan” and a reference to “burning the canoes.” This use of language is bothersome because it sends a subtle message that may not be what we intend to say.
Militaristic language has a negative connotation. It implies there is a war. In a war, there are two sides that are fighting each other and eventually there will be one victor.
Is this really how businesses run today?
The concept that collaboration is the new competitive advantage is not new, but it is getting more airtime of late. In their paper “Innovation through Global Collaboration” Alan MacCormack, Theodore Forbath, Peter Brooks and Patrick Kalaher from Harvard Business School contend that “innovations are increasingly brought to the market by networks of firms, selected according to their comparative advantages, and operating in a coordinated manner.” Rita Gunther McGrath argues in her book “The End of Competitive Advantage” that sustainable competitive is no longer possible so instead organizations should try to find transient advantages. Those organizations with the widest range of diverse connections will win out.
For many years, companies have been implementing collaboration tools in the hopes of breaking down the silos and encouraging cross-organizational interactions. They long for that boost in business performance that happens when people can find each other and work together without technology getting in the way. They want to eliminate duplicate work and surface innovative ideas with ease.
Unfortunately, language that implies our companies are in a war to gain competitive advantage and vanquish their enemies belies the desire to establish a collaborative and collegial work environment. The language we use shapes our reality and influence our actions.
So the next time you are tempted to talk about “mobilizing the troops” perhaps you will want to substitute a phrase that shows more empathy and encourages cooperation. How about “engage employees”?
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