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IYour Turn-I The Power of Words

October 6, 1999
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Early last week, I received a tip from an HR colleague in Seattle, who professed to have "discovered the right mindset for success."

Wow, I thought, that s incredibly powerful stuff. Maybe this is something that could be posted on HR's bulletin board, next to the announcement for open enrollment and the call for contributions to United Way. So I quickly scanned the e-mail message and found myself somewhat perplexed.

Her revelation goes something like this: "...challenge everyone to think of the people they provide a service to as the client, not as the boss." Everyone? I snatched up the phone and called for clarification. Sure enough, managers, executives, and even those near the very top of the hierarchy are purported beneficiaries of this thinking.

And the psychological image conjured up by "discover the right mindset," couched in clinical terms, is universally appealing. Who doesn't want to mentally click in and be guaranteed some level of instant acuity and success? In abstract, the challenge sounds easy, much too simple. The real test, in my mind, is practical application.

Investigation revealed that the ‘boss as client attitude, which is offered as a positive alternative to the all-too-common boss as adversary or tyrant mode of thinking, is not altogether new. It was born in the retail business world, where sales and marketing representatives, who depend on clients to purchase their goods and services, have already made the mental adjustment. For example, a marketing manager might think, "I sell my services to outside clients and support the efforts of my boss; therefore, he or she is also a "client."

On the other hand, common sense, and contact with distraught employees, who frequently seek HRs help with sticky "boss" issues, indicates that many workers would find it nearly impossible to relate to their bosses as clients. Similarly, the boss often does not wish to be thought of as a client by subordinates. In the corporate world, it's common for administrators to be granted the authority to single handedly promote or demote, establish salaries, review performance, and make judgments about future employment status and career advancement for whole groups of employees. Such an environment may not be conducive to the "mindset for success" attitude.

Who doesn't want to mentally click in and be guaranteed some level of instant acuity and success?

During the ‘90s, various organizations attempted to change mindset and, thus, the total corporate behavior of their workers, using terminology as a primary tool. When this occurred, HR was at the forefront in selling the concept to employees.

For instance, my employer, by virtue of mere words, recently catapulted every employee to the level of "associate" and/or "service partner." By memo, voice mail, e-mail, and a promotional video from the CEO, we were encouraged to write and speak in these terms, in order to emphasize that everyone plays an important role in the organization. (There s that ubiquitous "everyone" again.) The ideology is commendable. Inclusion is good. But, in my opinion, change management in any business requires much more than honorable intentions and buzz words.

Don't misunderstand! I'm not suggesting that the baby should be thrown out with the bath water. As any communicator can attest, words have an enormous impact in myriad situations. Delivering praise, resolving conflicts, and conveying excitement and enthusiasm, just to name a few, positively contribute to work environments.

However, when it comes to messages that are geared to influencing employee behavior by appealing to emotion, tailoring the "talk" to fit the particular size, culture, and philosophy of the organization is essential. The communication should be meaningful, realistic, and attainable. What works for one organization will fail in another.

For example, it s not necessarily a bad thing to view your boss as a "boss." Does attaching a label, or generic category, to all employees ensure that a junior HR "associate" will be extended similar consideration as an executive "associate?" In this particular case, the attempt at leveling by word alone is fiction and serves to accentuate the gap in status.

What is really important is the quality of personal and group relationships on the job. Achieving an optimum mindset in the office is partially accomplished by eliminating words that are sometimes perceived as negative and replacing them with more friendly, or meaningful, expressions that promote cooperation and teamwork.

My Seattle colleague will be pleased to know that I'm finally open to the mindset—convinced that a few well-placed words can have the power to transform an individual, an office, or a work force.

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