Words are powerful tools in shaping culture. Word can inspire nations, unify millions to support a common cause or, when driven by anger or malice, tear communities and families apart. Organizations that want to improve morale, can make a great start by simply watching the language.
Believe it or not, you can learn volumes about a culture by listening. It is the little nuances in language that can align teams under a single goal or vision or drive wedges between members causing poor morale and disengagement. One of the biggest culprits is a four-letter word, “They.” I have observed that this “us vs. them” (UVT) language is cancerous to the culture. “They” can be any person or group being blamed for a problem. We can often point a finger at who “they” are. “They” are often administration. “They” say no to things, chop budgets and don’t listen. “They” set policies and make rules to make the rest of the organization miserable. “They” don’t have any idea about what goes on in the real world of patient care. “They” are villains, whereas the “we, or us” are victims.
One of the first signs of a problem in the culture is when I hear managers or supervisors use the “us vs. them” language. They may be trying to strengthen a bond with their own team, but at what cost? The cost is that these words create a division between the front line associates and the senior leaders. The division may start as a small fissure, but when left unchecked, it can create an insurmountable chasm placing the staff miles apart from the leader’s vision and goals. When managers and supervisors model the UVT behavior, staff will emulate it, fostering a divisive, or victim-centered mindset.
I was recently in facility with a family member. Twice during the admission alone; we observed staff members using UVT language. One commented, “We are so understaffed. They took seven admissions today and we can’t keep up.” I can’t help but think that the senior leaders would cringe if they could hear these statements. What those senior leaders don’t know is hurting them. Imagine how different that encounter could have been if the staff member would have seized the opportunity to build patient trust by saying, “We’ve been expecting you. Our administrator and director let us know all about you. Our team is looking forward to taking care of you. ”
In another setting, during a culture assessment, we heard the UVT language in a focus group. Two staff members in different departments said, “Our manager is on our side, but they keep creating obstacles.” Hearing that was painful. Not only did they use the UVT language, they also described opposite camps. In this example, the culture has created an environment that makes it acceptable to use the UVT language. When the managers uses it, he/she is pitting staff against administration.
To make a change, each person in the organization must become more aware of his or her language. Start by being aware of any time you use language that could be divisive like the UVT example. Words are powerful. Use them wisely.