It is rare to have a conversation about collaboration and not hear something like “trust is important”. But I have never heard anyone mention that courage is also important. I recently read a really cool piece in Forbes by Liz Ryan (see link below**) who examines why so much business writing is awful. She calls it ‘zombie language’ in the workplace. I think many of us have noticed that the way we write and speak in the workplace is often not inspiring. Frankly, I think a lack of expertise in getting the best out of your people is not really possible with language that is as exciting to read as a vacuum cleaner instruction manual.
So, no surprises then that words like courage are avoided. As a matter of fact, courage is a term rarely used in business dialogue. It sounds too Hollywood-ish. Many, or perhaps too many, business managers and leaders fail spectacularly in engaging people they expect to perform at their best. Yes, it’s true that not all work can be exciting. At times managers can do little to make the work exciting. But, it is equally true that people’s attitude in performance is not solely dependent on how exciting the work is. If anything, the nature of work falls behind other factors. A friendly place, trusting atmosphere, purpose and sense of belonging are just some of the factors that employees value highly. Mounting evidence indicates that accommodating staff who want to spend time volunteering, or who wish to spend more of their work hours collaborating with colleagues, is also proving to be a great opportunity for businesses of all stripes to create a comparative advantage for themselves.
The idea of collaboration as good for competition is now well established. While it is still challenging for many managers to grasp the properties of collaboration, the new generation of workers are tuning into collaboration intuitively. The idea of collaboration in work and life is often lost on managers who learned their management skills two decades or more ago. The same applies to the language they use to engage with employees, stakeholders and customers. It is a costly mistake to presume that the way people operate in business should be significantly different from the way they operate in their private life. Some differences are normal and that is to be expected as we change environments. However, the way people take in and make sense of information remains largely unchanged. Metaphors, symbols, mythologies, are all part of the way humans make sense of the world. Things make sense when we can integrate them into a rich background of our own personal mythologies. A language that is full of empty managerial clichés is a sure predictor of lower engagement and, by logic, lower productivity.
This is not to say that managers/leaders have to be poetic. Far from it. But they do need to understand that management/business language is evolving. Its evolution trajectory is consistent with a broader society where new forms of value creation are emerging. Increasingly, people embrace ‘mosaic careers’ where a mash up of various roles and skills are used concurrently. The need to go from one job to another, from one organisation to another often in a same day, demands that contemporary workers be fluid. This inadvertently places a mandate on companies and enterprises of all sizes to be more critically aware of the way they use their language as a tool for engagement and value creation.
This task could be made much smoother and efficient if a collaboration strategy in any business environment allows employees to be active participants in the story telling, myth-making and values and principles design. Perhaps courage as a concept in a business environment may take a more prominent role, especially when it comes to collaboration. Collaboration unavoidably presents many challenges which can be resolved through trust, but on the flip side, it is better suited for entrepreneurial approaches. Risk is an opportunity which is shared between collaborators, and this is where courage becomes a vital factor in successful collaboration.
** Why Is Business Writing So Awful? By Liz Ryan (Forbes Magazine Contributor)