CommonSense Blog

The Language of Company Culture

By Adam Pedowitz | May 06, 2013

Organizational culture is an evergreen topic for business books, websites, articles, position papers, blogs, tweets, Likes, +1’s, corporate retreats, conference tracks and keynote addresses (and a few more places). In fact, out of 100 content tags on the Harvard Business Review blogs, I found that “Culture/Organizational Culture” was the 15th most used, beating out Marketing, Social Media and Crisis Management … and for good reason. A company’s culture can affect its performance, from recruitment and employee retention to innovation and market perception.

Text from Culture Pages of "Best Companies to Work For"At the heart of that culture are a company’s core values – what “will never change” as Jim Collins points out. Unfortunately, these values can end up marginalized in marketing and communications, thought of as just another concept to shoehorn into messaging. The language is often dry and benign: Integrity, Growth, Customer First, et al. But what if I told you this language has the power to change behavior and shape the way your employees (and customers) see the world, your company or their jobs?

A 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal explored cognitive research into connections between language and perception, and how different parts of language – like terminology, verb tense, relation to space/time – can shape the way people think. According to author Lera Boroditsky, “All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express.”

Core values provide a common language to guide employee actions and communications. In this light, differences between Japanese and English can be viewed similarly to the differences between the internal languages of Google and SAS (ranked 1 and 2 respectively on FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For). So imagine a company’s power to guide employee, partner and customer perception, and achieve greater goals around employee recruitment, satisfaction and innovation, simply by choosing and reinforcing the right language.

Whether creating your company’s core values or finding ways to better integrate them into your organizational communications, here are three language considerations to help maximize their potential and overall engagement:

  1. Negate the Negative: State what you stand for, not what you don’t. In the early days of Google, the founding few created the “Ten things we know to be true.” Now imagine if the list had been “Ten things we know to be false.” Seems like a small change, but that list would carry significantly less weight for current and potential employees, as well as customers and investors. Instead of discovering what the company stands for – what they believe will never change – you’d find the limited items Google believes are not true, exposing a whole world of questions on what it believes is true. It’s the difference between absolute clarity (what is) and ambiguity (what is not).
  2. Language Should “Fit”: If the word “Integrity” isn’t already in your company’s vernacular, it probably won’t resonate with employees, partners and customers. This doesn’t mean your company lacks integrity, only that you may need to find creative ways to illustrate that moral footing. A great example of this is “OUR ISMs” by Quicken Loans (#13 on FORTUNE’s list). Rather than integrity, they use “Do the right thing.” They then elaborate with a saying you can imagine repeated in every company presentation across the country: “Remember, eventually three things always come out: The Sun, The Moon, and The Truth.”
  3. Words Need a Story: Great core values contain history and strong rationale, perhaps a story or lesson reinforcing the company’s stance. Check out The Container Store (#16 on FORTUNE’s list), whose Foundation Principles feature themes like “Man In The Desert Selling.” This memorable metaphor is brought to life through an employee video sharing a story about this principle in action. Stories of core values in practice are also great ways to highlight employees and the company’s valued behaviors. Ideally, the stories themselves become a part of your internal language.

*Word cloud illustrates all the text (language) used on Culture pages for the top 20 companies in FORTUNE’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”