Employee Engagement Requires Progressive Language

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People from different cultures and eras clash in the workplace as they aspire to meet objectives that shift under their feet due to runaway innovation and morphing benchmarks of value and success.

Within this chaos, engagement falters with unmet expectations and communication failures that are due in large part to business language that’s static and lagging behind ever-accelerating change.

To reduce workplace friction, increase employee engagement and promote growth and profit, business language must be authentic, relevant, empathetic and curious.

New, as-yet-unnamed experiences

Fans of the late philosopher Alan Watts recently celebrated his 100th birthday. As one of those fans, I noticed there was a lot of chatter about the event on various social media channels. And, I was pleasantly surprised to see his son and daughter appear online and chat with people about their father’s books and lectures.

I don’t yet have the language to adequately describe the experience, because that sort of thing just hasn’t been happening that long. But, as similar events become commonplace for my children and their children, I’m sure excellent descriptions will come online with universal use.

Demographics, content and venue

Another example of innovation outpacing language is True Crime, a popular new podcast. It’s little more than people talking about bizarre criminals and crime, and the production values aren’t high. But, the popularity of the show continues to grow.

The show’s growing audience isn’t coming from a big marketing budget. It’s growing because young (and not so young) people think it’s funny and interesting and share links to the podcast with each other. It’s a viral content delivery channel case study.

It’s frictionless and viral because distribution is free and personal and if the popularity continues to grow, the quality might improve.But, whether it does or not, what should not be ignored is the fact that as young people consume and share content in new ways, they increasingly compare the experience to how they consume and share content in the workplace.

Change happens now, not tomorrow

It’s startling to think about how young employees are creating products and services for an aging society, under changing definitions of quality, and delivering it via channels that didn’t exist a matter of months ago.

But, in many ways it’s no different than how today’s mature employees changed the workplace when they were young. Young people always bring new methods and language from their personal life into the workplace, and over time it becomes the workplace norm.

Progress happens incrementally, moment-by-moment every day. Collective sensibilities and points of view shift slightly every morning as people are sharing coffee and talking about a show they watched or listened to or an article they read or an app they downloaded or a site they visited.

“Newly normal” business language gets formed then and there. Managers aren’t required or even involved unless they participate collaboratively and authentically. If team leaders aren’t empathetic or curious they’ll never even hear the new language until it’s too late to know what it all means.

Articulating what we do

In this Guardian article, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes that too many of us are in pointless jobs and do things that aren’t fulfilling. I understand her point, but her point isn’t really news. Economic cycles have always contained innovation and education sub-cycles. Business is a constant game of catch-up and reformation. There are always periods of creative stagnation.

But, about four paragraphs into the article she asks the very interesting questions, “What do I actually do?” and “What does anyone do?”

Without knowing it, Ms. Cosslett has stumbled upon what I believe is an increasing inability to adequately articulate what it is people do, because business language has trouble keeping pace with workplace innovation.

And, the people it affects the most are largely ignoring it. Innovation is accelerating at a faster rate, which causes the gap between it and the language used to describe it to widen, while the noise, distraction and confusion of all that change continues to cause people to talk past each other.

Simply put, if I’m your manager and you’re working on tasks with largely experimental objectives and if we don’t use the same business language, how can I be qualified to know whether or not you’re doing a good job?

And, if I’m insecure about my own job and have a lack of empathy or curiosity about your job, how on earth do we work together without you disengaging from me, and eventually the job with which you’ve been tasked?

This is the very heart of employee disengagement.

Engagement requires curiosity and empathy

Nothing is more pitiful than listening to an old person try to sound hip or a person from one culture mimicking a person from another culture. If a person’s language isn’t authentic, it’s hollow and subject to ridicule. This is especially true with communications between managers and employees in the workplace.

To achieve authenticity you must engage people with genuine curiosity about the subject at hand. Then you must empathize with the particular problem they’re trying to solve within the space and time in which they are working. Anything less is the root of disengagement.

But, with genuine, particular, moment-by-moment engagement between a manager and an employee, a fluid language emerges organically. You get to be you and they get to be them, but a bond is shared through a common, progressive language.

This is where employees engage. This is where company profits materialize.

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