There are very few days of my working life when I don’t find myself in the middle of a conversation far too similar to this Thick Of It sketch about the ‘quiet bat people’. This very week, a Head of Service asked that I changed some innocent wording in a report because he felt some staff members would read between the lines and conclude that I was saying it was necessary for some team members to die to enable the change to occur. (I really, truly wasn’t.)
Particularly in a time of major change programmes, it is widely acknowledged that communications are a critical element to get right. . However, the extent of the debate amongst very senior people with lots to worry about, over major or controversial proposals, focusing exclusively on the wording rather than the content as the major concern never fails to surprise me.
In the past week alone I’ve spent time brainstorming alternatives for ‘outsourcing’ (market testing, externalisation, outward commissioning, supplier engagement), ‘centralisation’(pooling, hub-creation, centrifugal staff distribution), ‘redundancies’ (staff wastage, turnover, consolidation, reduction) a ‘contract management team’ (commercial hub, intelligent client, innovative business centre) a ‘project’ (work stream, strand of work, programme, change enabler) and at its worst, a flexible ‘project management team’ (task force, swat team and even “hit squad”). And these are certainly not amongst the worst out there.
Given how hard it is to find any safe ground when talking about the significant and difficult changes all local authorities are going through, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us descend into an alternative language – the dreaded management lingo.
So why don’t we just say what we mean? Does it make much difference to staff if we spend time softening the message through clever language if the end result is the same? In thinking so carefully about language, are we doing an injustice to intelligent staff who know exactly what our cleverly worded euphemisms translate as, or worse, missing out on an opportunity to be really clear in our messaging? I’ve certainly come across managers who find the careful phrasing of staff communications to be a waste of time and don’t believe it can have any impact at all.
Yet, at risk of sounding Orwellian, language does matter, and it does have an impact on how a message is received and how it makes people feel. We know this, because we all do it on a daily basis to avoid upsetting or offending people around us – think ‘passed away’, ‘big boned’, ‘put to sleep’ and ‘modest income.’ I certainly don’t advocate being economical with the truth (excuse the euphemism…), and there are limits (it’s just a project, call it a project) but at a time of uncertainty, major change and worry for colleagues across the public sector, positive use of language can help to provide reassurance, prevent distractions through misunderstandings or assumptions, and help maintain motivation levels. It is critical that managers are sensitive to the impact communications can have, and that we do take the time to think about how we say things as much as what we’re saying.