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Are you using bad language?

Research shows that we speak on average 15,000 words a day. How many of your words do you really think through? From morning greetings to meeting directives, lift pleasantries to client negotiations, some will be carefully chosen, but many will flow without much scrutiny.


But the words we use, how we talk about our business, ourselves, and each other can have a huge impact. And they reflect more about you and your team than you might think.

It’s something explored in Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. Logan believes our chosen words, and the way we talk about each other and the competition, is an accurate indicator of the stage of business we are in. As he puts it, ‘change the language in the tribe, and you have changed the tribe itself.’


Workplace tribes

The book revolves around seeing teams as ‘corporate tribes’ and leaders as ‘tribal leaders’ who can upgrade the tribal culture.

As leaders of our tribe it’s our responsibility to ensure it grows and strengthens. To foster an inspired tribe rather than a culture of mediocrity.

And for Logan there’s an inextricable link between the words a workplace tribe uses and the effectiveness of the business.


5 stages to a thriving tribe

There are 5 different stages a tribe can be at. In Stage One the culture has completely broken down, but at Stage Five it’s thriving.

Want to know where your tribe is? Here’s how to identify them:

Stage One

It’s very unlikely you’ll be – or have ever – operated at this stage. It’s the ‘life sucks’ stage. People in a tribe like this are despairingly hostile and use language that reflects this – threatening violence and creating scandals.

Stage Two

25% of workplace tribes are at this stage. It’s a shift from ‘life sucks’ to ‘my life sucks’. The language people use is passively antagonistic, sarcastic, and resigned. People talk as if they are disconnected and without passion for the business. They might tell leaders they are on board but share with each other their gripes and disappointments. There is little laughter or sense of urgency and lots of repressed anger.

Stage Three

Logan says that around half of all workplaces display this culture. So what kind of language do they use? It can be summed up by: “I’m great, and you’re not”. Common among doctors, professors and salespeople, it’s a culture where knowledge is power, and people talk mostly about themselves to demonstrate their superiority. Two-person conversations are common, and information gleaned is hoarded rather than shared further.

Stage Four

The language in this stage focuses on ‘we’ not ‘me’. It’s characterised by: “we’re great, and they’re not” and represents 22% of businesses. At this stage people are happy, inspired, and feel able to be themselves – they ask ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ in situations. They talk about shared values and a common purpose and how to take on the competition – and win.

Stage Five

If your tribe is at this stage your language will revolve around potential and impact. Not in relation to competition – your team won’t really reference them, but your limitless innovation and the history you’re making. Only 2% of businesses are at this “Life is great” stage but if you’re here, you’ll detect almost no fear, stress, or conflict in the communication within your team.

Become a solid Stage Four tribe

While Stage Five is a workplace culture utopia, upgrading our tribes to Stage Four is a realistic ambition.

The first step to do this is to determine what stage your tribe is already at by listening carefully to conversations and noting interactions and relationships within your team. 

When you’re ready to upgrade your tribe:

Don’t go it alone, seek the support and insight of your senior team.

Go beyond organisational boundaries – if you’ve observed people in your business already speaking the language of a stage four tribe, invite them into the process.

Bad language and poor communication have the potential to stagnate or even damage your business. But the right words have the power to contribute to a thriving culture and a successful business.

As Logan puts it: ‘if people change their words (or, more accurately, their words and their words’ relationships to one another), they change their perception of reality. As they change their reality their behaviour changes automatically.’

Take some time to really listen to the language of your business and what it means for your culture and growth.