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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

The unrecognised language that is essential for business improvement

One of the requirements of participants in the 18 month Certified Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program is to collaborate in small groups to run one-day workshops for people who are not doing the course. One of the workshops focuses on how to utilise the ontological approach to language for personal and professional development, as well as for business improvement. This is often done within organisations.

Three recent experiences of the workshop being run in organisations are: (i) an electricity and gas utility in Australia, (ii) a Danish bank and (ii) a large life insurance company in South Africa. All workshops were very well received with each group pf facilitators making the key ontological concepts clear and engaging participants in their relevance and practical applications in each workplace.

Two of the key background themes of the workshop are:

· the hidden waste that continually occurs with the repeated mis-use of language, and

· the ineffective communication habits that can form part of organisational culture being regarded as linguistic viruses, which compromise healthy organisational functioning.

The South African workshop was provided for a well-functioning team whose members are committed and dedicated to continual improvement and have and very good reputation in the organisation for getting things done.

As a result of the excellent work of the four ontological facilitators (Evette, Jenny, Sharon and Veronique) the team gained some significant “ah-ha’s” and specific practical steps they can take to improve their functioning and output. From their own calculations, the team members realised that in one crucial area of how they interact with each other and others in the organisation, their efficiency is 15%. They have begun the process of meeting a commitment to lift this to 85% and established clear metrics against which to be judged and accountable.

The essence of what the team gained was the realisation of the prevalence and costliness of coordination waste that has been compromising their efficiency and productivity. They learned, and have begun to apply, how to identify and eliminate the linguistic viruses that bedevil the functioning of all organisations and unnecessarily, and most probably, waste billions of dollars globally each year. Before looking at these linguistic viruses some context about the notion of coordination waste will be provided.

The essence of organisational work

Eminent contemporary historian Yuval Noah Harari * has described language as “the human operating system”. Herein lies a clue to the nature of how organisations function and improve.

The essence of organisations is about getting things done to achieve desired business outcomes. Of course, it is people who are involved in getting things done, and employees do not work in isolation from each other, completing tasks to fulfil the requirements of their roles.

Things get done in organisations through cooperative efforts in which the expertise that each person has in their role is made available to assist others to complete tasks, assignments and projects. A formal expression for these cooperative efforts is coordination of action.

Action between individuals occurs through communication – be it face-to-face or via machine. In other words, human interaction is essential for things to get done. And here is the first aspect of an unintentional blindness in organisational functioning and improvement – that human interaction is a fundamental, if not the fundamental, business process. Simply put, things do not get done in organisations without human interaction.

Human interaction is typically referred as inter-personal communication. In the ontological approach it is referred to as conversations and relationships, with every human interaction being a conversation. You are invited to pause for a brief moment and consider how many conversations you have each day in getting your work done. In addition, think how many conversations occur daily in your organisation.

The second aspect of unintentional blindness in organisational functioning and improvement is that the quality of workplace conversations and relationships has a direct bearing on business outcomes and organisational success. How effective are the conversations in your workplace? A key question to be continually asking is, “Are the conversations in your organisation producing value or are they producing waste?” In other words, do the conversations facilitate effective coordination of action, which is essential for efficiency and productivity, or do they result in unnecessary and repetitive effort that not only wastes time and energy, but also creates frustration and dissatisfaction?

It is not that these two aspects of unintentional blindness are not “known” – people will recognise their importance if mentioned, but emphasis is rarely placed on them as essential aspects of business process. So, there is a “knowing” but a “not knowing” when it comes to factoring in conversations and relationships to the way business is done. An expression for this not knowing is that it is hidden in plain sight.

Clearly then, conversations and relationships are essential for workflow and the functioning of the value chain, in which expertise provides value along the path to reaching organisational targets and goals and the quality delivery, or provision, of services and products to customers and citizens.

All workplace roles are fundamentally conversational, and a significant part of what people are paid to do is to continually engage in quality conversations that result in desired outcomes and organisational success.

Certainly, what is not recognised is that conversations and relationships deserve to be treated as a robust business discipline and methodology. Such a discipline and methodology has been created in the field of Ontological Coaching.

Language and conversations

Let us now return to Harari’s notion that language is the operating system of humans. Many years ago Lewis Mumford wrote that language is the fundamental human technology, meaning that language is the means by which we get things done and create the future.

The notions of operating system and technology are convenient mechanistic analogies for explaining the centrality of language in the successful development of cooperative efforts. While these terms will be used in this article, it is important to emphasise that they are analogies and that humans are not machines and human communication is not a mechanical phenomenon. As biologist Humberto Maturana has made clear language is a biological and a social phenomenon and that we do not use language, but rather humans engage in language as an integral part of living. ** He uses languaging as a verb to highlight that we are always inescapably engaging in language as a fundamental medium in which we exist.

Having established this biological qualification, we can now return to a mechanistic analogy of language. In a world that is dominated by machines and the language of machines (witness for example reference to the human brain being “hard-wired” or the expression “information processing) the use of mechanistic analogies can make significant practical concepts accessible and applicable that are central to the functioning of organisations. Consequently, people can learn how to more effectively engage in the biological and social phenomenon of language and generate improved outcomes in all areas of their lives.

Linguistic viruses

We typically engage in language through speaking, writing and listening, with drawing sometimes playing an important role. The way we engage in language generates outcomes – people respond to what they hear and read and consequently realities are created.

With a strong philosophical base, Ontological Coaching draws on the work of major philosophers who made breakthrough discoveries in the different ways that language generates realities. Significant aspects of language were identified in which we are continually active that can result in favourable and unfavourable outcomes. What is especially interesting, is that although we cannot avoid having these specific actions in our language, we are typically not aware of these and therefore completely unaware of how effectively we are engaging with them. Unfortunately, our traditional educational and training systems have not supported us to develop this awareness, with the likelihood that we can fall into ineffective linguistic habits that continually result in unsatisfactory outcomes. These ineffective habits can be referred to as linguistic viruses, which we can imagine are like computer viruses and malware, infecting and damaging the human operating system of language.

Without wanting to be too grandiose, the ontological approach to language can be regarded as a virus detection and repair system. Let’s now have a look at some of the potential viruses that lurk in the language habits of the workplace.

Virus 1 – inaccurate listening and making assumptions. Listening, as an integral part of conversations, is a fundamental business process. In listening we make our own sense of what we have heard or read and the virus that can take hold is making unjustified assumptions and not taking the time to check our understanding and ensuring there is clarity. The big risk is that we make decisions and take action based on our understanding, which may well be in accurate.

Virus 2 – treating our opinions as if they are facts. Making judgments, having opinions, evaluating and assessing are all part of being human. These often occur within our inner conversations (related to our listening), as well as our spoken and written conversations. An insidious linguistic trap we can easily become ensnared in is treating our opinions as if they are fact, which can lead us to thinking we are right and others are wrong and being intensely emotionally attached to our opinions. The consequence of this linguistic habit is likely to be iunproductive and potentially destructive conversations.

Virus 3 – not being prepared to substantiate our opinions. Our judgments are the basis of our decisions, influencing our behaviour and how we are oriented to the future. One of the traps of making assessments is that we may not be aware that we are making them and they can be ill-considered and do not stand up to scrutiny. We can be operating from a habit of not taking responsibility for our opinions, unwilling to unpack them and check if they are solid or have substance.

Virus 4 – being vague and imprecise in making requests of others, which is referred to as “sloppy” requests. Requests are at the heart of the cooperative process in which we call on the expertise of others to assist us in getting things done. Requests are essential for getting things done together. A costly linguistic habit is not taking responsibility for ensuring that each request is clearly understood, assuming that others understand what you are asking them to do and that they therefore have made a commitment. Consequently, unnecessary time, effort and energy is required to tidy up sloppy requests.

Virus 5– a damaging linguistic habit can be “slippery promises”, in which the person responding to the request agrees to what has been asked but either does not fully understand the request or has not stated a sincere agreement. A key question to ask in seeking cooperation is, “How do you know you have a reliable promise?’” Making a request, even a clearly worded one, does not guarantee a commitment. A key responsibility of the requester is to listen carefully to the response.

Virus 6 – expecting that making a request automatically means there will be a promise or commitment. This attitude closes off options for the person responding, such as (i) negotiating another way of acting on the request and (ii) not feeling pressured to respond immediately and committing to provide a definite considered response at a specific time. Closing off options for responding can result in people feeling taken for granted and restricting the possibility that things can be done in a more beneficial way.

In the South African workshop the costliness of these viruses was readily evident to the team. As previously stated, and to their credit, they recognised that they can considerably improve their efficiency from 15-85% and established measures to hold themselves accountable for making this significant improvement.

Reflection and application

In your workplace, family and other group settings:

· What do you notice about the way people communicate with each other?

· How well do people seem to coordinate and cooperate?

· What linguistic viruses do you observe in each setting – all or some?

· What improvements will occur with the elimination of these linguistic viruses?


* Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

** Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding

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