Have you ever had a cryptic conversation with a close friend?
The kind where you only need a few key words and phrases for them to understand you?
The kind that anyone else you know would have trouble deciphering?
That quick shorthand communication is possible because of your shared or common language.
In a business context, a shared language is an often invisible and wholly underestimated indicator of organisational culture because “language serves not only as a means of communication but also as a marker of identity.”
Without it, teams can quickly become fragmented and change is more difficult. We need a shared language to build and maintain relationships and partnerships, so we can co-create a common purpose and set common goals.
Elements of Shared Language
Developing shared language relies upon:
When developing shared langage, pay attention to:
- Technical and design language
- Culture specific language
- Regional, national and social differences
- Person first language
Joyce Thomas and Deana McDonagh. (2013). Shared language: Towards more effective communication. ResearchGate.
The benefits of a shared language within organisations are many.
- Consistency – when teams, customers, and clients all hear the same language, they perceive a sense of reliability and cohesiveness
- Speed – the shorthand of a shared language can hasten communication and collaboration
- Accuracy – there is less room for misinterpretation and error if we all
understand the meaning of the words that we use
- A Sense of Culture – a shared language, through metaphor, categorisation and labelling, and frequency becomes a key factor in building a culture.
Shared Language and Culture
The role of a shared language in establishing a company culture is crucial because words tend to set cultural permissions that we then adopt as
For instance, language can be inclusive or exclusive. We can use it to open doors and invite conversations, or we can build walls with it and shut down enquiry. Research shows that high performance cultures are inclusive, and how we voice that inclusion is key. Inclusive language will be respectful, and it notices other people’s value.
Metaphors are a particularly influential language device too. If your business’ key metaphor is “time is money”, that will foster an entirely different culture than “find your flow” or “invest in riders not horses”.
Language also provides stability while allowing for innovation. “On the one hand, words are conventional and prescriptive, and provide a stable representation that is easily shared with great fidelity, but on the other hand, words have an open-ended “placeholder” structure that invites innovation… this dual capacity contributes to what is distinctive in human cultural evolution.”
How to Build a Shared Language
There are some very practical ways in which we can ensure our organisational language aligns with our people and purpose:
- Create a list – identify and record the language that is specific to your workplace
- Be explicit during onboarding – don’t rely on chance and osmosis, be explicit about introducing your shared language to new team members
- Make it a learning focus – coach your team members and partners on your language
- Encourage consistency – streamline your communications channels to enhance consistency (e.g. Slack, Teams etc)
- Identify friction points – where has language let you down or caused a miscommunication and how can you learn from that?
- Correlate with industry – align your language with your industry practitioners and partners
Because language conveys meanings and references “beyond itself”, learning a shared language requires us to also understand the behaviours, customs, and beliefs that underly the words we use to communicate. That process inextricably entwines language with culture. We cannot speak without conveying culture, and to know a culture, we must know its language.
That feedback loop has important implications for transforming organisations. Daily conversations and sentiments set ingrained patterns, so new or changed language needs to be introduced with patience, time, and respect. But it’s well worth the effort because we need language to understand each other – and from shared understanding, comes shared
1. Rand, Michael. (2019, February 13). Adopting a shared language drives business value. BRM Institute.
2. National Business Research Institute. (2020, August 8). Create a common language within your organization. NBRI.
3. Everyday Massive. (2019, November 14). The role of language in shifting and shaping culture. Everyday Massive.
4. Diversity Council Australia. (2016). #wordsatwork -building inclusion through the power of language. DCA.
5. Gelman, Susan A., and Steven O. Roberts. (2017, July 25). How language shapes the cultural inheritance of categories. PNAS.
6. Guessabi, Fatiha. (2019, October 16). Blurring the line between language and culture. Language Magazine.
7. Thomas, Joyce and Deana McDonagh. (2013, January 30). (PDF) Shared language: Towards more effective communication. ResearchGate.
Need More Help?
Keen to find out more about using a shared language to build and maintain relationships and partnerships? Performance Frontiers are experts in helping organisations undertake the fundamental shifts required. Speak to us about how we can partner with you to employ a language culture based on shared understanding that contributes to your organisation’s shared commitment, today.
While every effort has been made to provide valuable, useful information in this publication, this organisation and any related suppliers or associated companies accept no responsibility or any form of liability from reliance upon or use of its contents. Any suggestions should be considered carefully within your own particular circumstances, as they are intended as general information only.