How to Use Language to Support a Responsible Culture

culture and responsibility

As people across the world watch the 2016 United States presidential campaign, they witness the division and ultimately a culture change evolving in our nation.

We have more choices to express our opinions, but less tolerance for the opinions of others. We have more passion, but less compassion. We have more speed, but less self-control. We want even more freedoms but are unwilling to take responsibility.

These changes contribute to the spiral down effect of incivility, disrespect and violence.

Behaviors and language that used to be considered uncivilized and unacceptable seemingly have become the norm. It’s not unusual to see social media threads full of vulgarity, verbal assaults, name-calling and other irresponsible language when people disagree with each other’s political views. The danger we all face is becoming desensitized and as a result unwittingly becoming part of the cultural decline toward incivility and violence.

The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.

Big cultural shifts start in the invisible and grow from a small seed. Violent thoughts lead to violent words. Violent words lead to violent behaviors. Violent behaviors lead to a violent culture. The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.

As a leader, whether you are a department supervisor, director, executive or owner you have a unique opportunity to shift the national culture back to civility, respect, and personal responsibility by embracing and embodying personal responsibility in your area of control. A culture of responsibility starts with the decision to practice responsible language, rather than a decision to change culture.

If you are trying to transform culture you have entered a black hole. As Dr. Edgar Schein told me when I interviewed him for my book No-Drama Leadership, “Don’t try to change culture. Look instead at the business problem and find a solution for that.”

If you think the business problem is the behavior, my advice is to go back, and listen to the language. From there you have the most power to course-correct before the behaviors manifest. Language is the area where leaders have the most ability to recognize and change to create a culture of personal responsibility.

What Is Responsibility?
I have developed a definition of responsibility that is distinct from accountability yet lays the framework for accountability to be effective. Responsibility is first the recognition of choice; second, the ownership of the choice; and third, the willingness to accept the consequence of the choice. The distinction I make between responsibility and accountability is that responsibility is about ownership, and accountability is about measurement. Responsibility is of the heart, and accountability of the head. Before accountability is possible there must be full ownership. A person’s level of personal responsibility is revealed by listening to the language.

Identifying Responsible Language
Responsible language has four core components: Absence of blame; forward moving, empowered, and respectful.

Absence of Blame
A common myth is that only front line employees gossip and blame, but I can tell you as a consultant who works with owners and executives this simply is not so. I have conducted 360 evaluations and listened to executives blame each other for the business problems yet neither of them were willing to sit down and have a mediated dialogue.

I have heard managers say, “I’ve told my employee a thousand times to do XYZ” without considering that the problem may be their ineffective leadership or inability to hold their employees accountable.

Blame is everywhere. We see it on social media. We see blame from our political leaders. We see blame in our workplaces. Until we accept the role we play and see the choices available we continue to energize this non-productive pattern that inhibits growth.

Forward Moving
Responsible language is forward moving with a focus on the vision. As a leader you cannot afford to get distracted into long-winded conversations about how it used to be, or who did something wrong a decade ago. The only two reasons to talk about the past is to reminisce, or learn. To use the past as a way to escape the choices we have in the now wastes time, and contributes to a culture of blame.

Complaining is always a sign of disempowerment. The experience of disempowerment leads to justifying bad behaviors. For example, “I had to steal because I didn’t get a raise, and I had no other choice.” People complain for only two real reasons: Either they don’t know what they want, or they know what they want but don’t think they have the power to get it. Empowerment is about recognizing choices rather than complaining about circumstances.

Reactive language always causes relationship drama. Reactive language ranges from sarcasm, innuendo, all the way to verbal abuse. A good way to know if the language is respectful in your workplace is by the ability to answer this question: Does this language build a barrier or a bridge? Respectful language is about building bridges. Almost all workplace drama could be eliminated if human beings were more respectful of each other.

We have a unique opportunity as leaders to embrace and embody the ideal of personal responsibility. I believe that there is no better time in history for leaders at every level to take a stand for the purpose of shifting our national culture back to civility, respect, and order.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you responsible in your language, or is it time to course-correct? I welcome your comments below.

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Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker, and the author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011) and the author of No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015) and 7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice, (Greenbranch 2018). Visit the web at Connect via Linked In, Facebook, and twitter.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • susanmrushworth

    Interesting post – I can certainly believe that insisting on respectful language would be a simple yet powerful way of shifting culture toward one where solving problems becomes possible.

    All the same, I was troubled by your quote and I would like to hear a bit more context around it: “Don’t try to change culture. Look instead at the business problem and find a solution for that.”
    Read simplistically, it could sound as though culture is unimportant. In my current workplace, I am pretty sure that the leadership team think that ” Look at the business problem and find a solution for that.” is EXACTLY what they are doing. However, they are implementing without any communication about the nature of the problem (other than we don’t have enough money), the reasoning behind the solutions proposed – or even explaining what the solutions are, usually changes are just imposed without explaining why or how they move us towards a solution.
    In this environment, morale has plunged to an all time low, employees feel disempowered and burnt out. And most of all, we don’t see that the actions being taken are actually solving any business problem, and it often means they are creating new ones. I’m sure that’s not what Edgar Schein meant by the statement you quoted.

    So where DOES culture fit into solving the business problem.

    • Marlene Chism

      Thanks for the comments everyone. Let’s say that there is a culture where lack of trust is the issue. The issue to be worked on is both mindset and behavioral. Suppose supervisors have a habit of telling people what they want to hear. Or perhaps employees feel blindsided with changes that have been in the works for months with no warning. In addition, many supervisors agree to “get back to people” but never follow though. Maybe people are fired without adequate warning, discipline, and/or training. These are all business issues that contribute to the culture of a lack of trust. A lot of times what I see is misalignment between what we say we value and what the behaviors suggest that we value. Misalignment creates a culture of distrust. So in reality when we find the root causes that contribute to the culture we then work on business problem and in essence the new behavior starts to shape culture.

      From my perspective words like culture and engagement have been thrown around and have become “programs” and flavor of the month. Culture is a BIG word that includes the internal environment, as well as the external environment and what we need to do serve the outside to survive on the inside. All of these elements comprise culture.

      I worked in a factory for 21 years and what I learned also has to do with culture. If a machine isn’t working properly, you don’t overhaul the entire machine. You look for the one gear, or one switch, or one moving part that is causing the problem with the whole.

      Hope that helps.

      • susanmrushworth

        Now following you on Disqus Marlene. Keep up the good work.

        • Marlene Chism

          Thanks Susan!

  • marcus shiveley

    I initially had the same reaction as Susan outlines in her second paragraph below. I ultimately concluded the “business problem” referenced by the author is rooted in language. Culture is defined in this context as the product of language and behavior – with behavior substantially influenced by language.

    This post resonates with me deeply. The post election outcome is troubling. Trump detractors in many instances assume/espouse Trump supporters are racists and/or misogynists – without any discourse to develop an informed opinion. I certainly understand and respect why so many constituencies are so troubled by Trump’s election – but compounding the sense of anger, hopelessness or despair by characterizing alternate viewpoints in such an offensive way is certainly not unifying or inspiring of “good behavior”. Attention to language and its expression – written or spoken – is critically important

    • Marlene Chism

      Yes! The only change we really have control over is how we show up in the world, yet we as a society keep pointing fingers at others hoping they will change.

  • Char Weeks

    Very interesting article. Asking yourself, “Does this language build a bridge or a barrier?” before you speak, should be a staple in the strategic leader’s toolkit. Listening is often undervalued as a tool, especially for those who miss hearing the beat of culture as a result of wanting to be heard. I am aware of many great culture shifts that have resulted from fixing a business or service delivery problem.