The Powerful Influence of Negative Speech on Company Culture

The Powerful Influence of Negative Speech on Company Culture


The ability to create and use language is one of the distinctive features of humans. What’s more, humans learn culture through language. So the words we choose in the workplace – and how we choose to say them – have a direct influence on the culture you’re trying to develop in your business.

If you want to change attitudes and behaviours in your company to be more innovative, for example, the first place to start is by changing the kind of language used by yourself, managers, and staff.

The power of positive vocabulary

Leading by example, try to eliminate words like ‘I can’t,’ and use more constructive versions of the sentiment to emphasise the possible: ‘I could if I…’. How to enforce it? Have someone monitor your language and pay a R50 fine every time you say, ‘I can’t.’

If you think this is a bit simplistic for adults, here’s an example of it in action: Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines noticed that negative speech patterns had created an environment hostile to new ideas: ‘We’ve tried that already,’ or ‘That will never work.’ Sound familiar?

To turn things around she would fine staff $10 for every negative remark. It was a trivial amount for managers, but it also avoided embarrassing them in front of their colleagues. The rule effectively wiped out those expressions in a short space of time.

The science in a phrase

If you’re seeking out new possibilities, try to use ‘How might we…?’ They’re three simple words, but the linguistics behind them is quite profound, so much so that international design firm, IDEO, has ingrained it into its culture. Here’s how it works:

  • ‘How’ suggests there’s possibility for improvement if a way is found. So it’s a matter of working out a solution.
  • ‘Might’ is an important word because it temporarily lowers the bar a little and allows room for wild or improbable ideas before self-editing sends them to the dustbin.
  • ‘We’ is just as important. It establishes ownership of the challenge and makes it clear that it’s not just a group effort, but our group effort.
Tracy Lee Nicol
Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.