The language is always the tell. The subjects we talk about and the words we choose tell our team, our organization, 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- social media means on LinkedIn. Every day, LinkedIn summarizes 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 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 organizations dance between virtual, hybrid, and in-office models, the phrase ‘back to work’ is being bandied about a lot.
This phrase is a tell. I suspect it reveals an underlying belief (particularly with senior leaders) that working from home was not really working. However, implying that the last 2+ 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 of email at 6pm while others (sometimes in the same company) 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 behavior – 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 organizations 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 Harvard Business Review, noting, “While some aspects of a “family” culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organization’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 behavior. Suggesting that people haven’t been working, have their priorities out of whack, or that everyone is a happy family is only setting organizations up to fail.
It always starts with the words. Choose yours carefully.