Do you ever pause to consider how much language might influence our behaviour?
I frequently quote the passage in Jack Welch’s biography “Jack” where he tells of an employee who told him, “For 25 years you’ve paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” I use it to support the argument that we get too hung up on job descriptions and fail to look at the total individual, their true potential and the contribution they could make to the organisation in the longer term.
This approach is cemented in our language and terminology by the tendency to generically refer to people as the “hired hands” or the “hired help.”
To date I have always focussed on the ‘hands’ bit, questioning how we can really expect to engage people if we, even totally subconsciously, consider them to be no more than hands. I was thinking about this yesterday when it struck me that the word ‘hired’ is perhaps even more pernicious.
The word ‘hire’ implies something temporary and therefore transient. This is hardly surprising for Webster’s Dictionary defines the word in part as, “To procure for another person for temporary use… to bribe.” It therefore seems quite logical – even natural – that there is little or no loyalty, for the employment contract almost builds in barriers to employee engagement. Managers seem to expect that people will go elsewhere as soon as someone else “bribes” them to move, while they in turn offer little to the person to encourage them to do otherwise. This is clearly evident in the current economic climate where businesses are shedding employees like a wet dog shaking off water.
The greatest irony, however, is that this is happening when the “war for talent” is supposed to be one of the modern manager’s greatest concerns. Clearly there is a great need to rethink the way people – the greatest asset – are viewed in the commercial world.
It seems to me to be impossible to expect to compete effectively, to offer superior customer service or to overcome the destructive disengagement pervading the workforce, unless we rethink the way we view people and the relationship between people and organisations. And perhaps we should to start by looking closely at our everyday language and what it reveals. For starters we need to stop talking about “hiring” and “firing” people, human “resources”, and other pejorative words like “hands”. I am sure you have your own list.