The Power of Language, The Language of Power

by Doug Kirkpatrick, US Partner at NuFocus Strategic Group

It's hard, and perhaps impossible, to describe the workplace of the future with the language of the Industrial Age. As a thought experiment, let's try replacing the following terms and see if it's possible to cultivate a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being at work in the twenty-first century.

Human Resources (see also: HR). In the 1980s, organizations replaced the old concept of a "personnel department" with the new, improved concept of a "human resources department". Management saw the term "personnel" as overly supportive of workers in the brave new world of reengineering. As journalist Cliff Weathers noted, new efficiency technologies called for a new generation of panopticonic overseers aligned with management to keep workers (resources) on track.

A copy machine is a resource. A forklift is a resource. A parking lot is a resource. People aren't resources. Henry Mintzberg said it best: "A resource is a thing. I am a human being. I am not a human resource."

Most human beings would probably agree.

Our People (see also: My People, Your People, His People, Her People, Your People, Their People, Its People). Perhaps we should reserve possessive pronouns for things (not people) that can actually be possessed?

Empowerment. Empowerment programs usually involve someone with power lending his or her power to someone with less power. The problem with this scenario is that what has been loaned can be repossessed at any time. People either have power to do certain things or they don't. Revokable empowerment is an unsustainable oxymoron.

Employee (see also: Employees). Dictionary.com defines employee as "a person working for another person or business firm for pay". In an era of talent wars, when robot managers are now giving orders to humans, that definition doesn't seem very motivating. Dictionary.com also cites the word origin as: n. "person employed," 1850, mainly in U.S. use, from employ + -ee. Not coincidentally, this usage sprang up in the mid-1800s, right around the advent of the Industrial Age. Much of American labor jurisprudence reflects this glaring dichotomy between superiors and inferiors. The legal doctrine of respondeat superior, for example, is derived from the common law of masters and servants. Would a truthful job description labeled "servant" attract millennials to a rigid command-and-control business hierarchy? Let's take a survey.

While people of every generation seek meaning at work, that drive is particularly acute for millennials. Karl Moore wrote in Forbes: "They (millennials) are constantly seeking purpose in what they do for a living and at the same time want to know how their job is helping them get to the top". If this is true, then they aren't merely working for another person or firm for pay.

The Industrial Age gave birth to the word "employee". Some thoughtful organizations have already adopted sobriquets like "Associate" (W.L. Gore) and "Cast Member" (Disney), which convey a unique, professional work culture. Surely the Information Age can produce a better word to capture the emergent reality.

Direct Reports (see also: Indirect Reports). More lazy language that reinforces the artificial distinction between superiors and inferiors. Exactly when did people consent to become "reports"?

Boss. Conveys the devaluing notion that one person has all the answers, and merely needs to issue orders to inferiors to get the work done.

Headcount. Apparently, it's not important to know whether a person's entire body is engaged at work.

The problem with leaders marinating in traditional HR jargon is that it reinforces the mindset that the workplace is a caste system where people can be divided by rank. For too many people in this system, the goal is to rise above others in order to enjoy the privileges of rank. This means that a key organizational challenge is to stop individuals with power from abusing that power with arbitrary and capricious decisions, personal agendas or vendettas.

Lord Acton, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, famously stated that: "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It turns out that Acton's observation was truer than he could possibly have known at the time.

University of Dublin's Dr. Ian Robertson has discovered that there is a biological basis to the addiction of power. It turns out that in both men and women, the exercise of power increases both the levels of testosterone and 3-androstanediol (a testosterone by-product). This chemical surge, in turn, increases dopamine levels--a short-term reward for the brain. Unfortunately, the addiction to power can simulate the physical addiction to cocaine--producing short-term euphoria but also leading to arrogance, impatience, egocentricity and lack of empathy. Most sentient adults have observed such sub-optimal behavior in organizational leaders of all kinds--with substantial negative effects.

Dr. Robertson authored The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain. His analysis of baboon hierarchies provided key insights into the effects of dominant behavior in groups, and the effect on group dynamics. Baboons low in the hierarchy have low levels of dopamine. Once "promoted", however, dopamine levels rise--making them more aggressive.

The jolt of dopamine does have an upside--apparently, it increases the activity of the frontal lobes, making people smarter for a while. But the net effects on relationships and human happiness must be weighed in the balance.

As Dr. Robertson notes in a recent article:

Democracy, the separation of judicial powers and the free press all evolved for essentially one purpose - to reduce the chance of leaders becoming power addicts.

Lord Acton thought that power corrupts. Science backs him up. Organizations would be well advised to activate internal checks and balances on the raw exercise of individual power.

Paradoxically, the easy way to do this is by creating policies and procedures that try to anticipate every conceivable abuse of power. The harder but more durable path is to embrace the bedrock principles and practices of organizational self-management and embed them everywhere in the language and the culture.

Doug Kirkpatrick is the author of Beyond Empowerment, The Age of the Self-Managed Organization. He is an organizational change consultant, TEDx and keynote speaker, executive coach, writer, educator and SPHR.

He played the first season of his business career in the manufacturing sector, principally with The Morning Star Company of Sacramento, California, a world leader in the food industry, as a financial controller and administrator. He now engages with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute, Great Work Cultures, The Center for Innovative Cultures and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management. Contact Doug at Twitter @Redshifter3.
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