Friday, 3 April 2009

Lexicon? What’s that?

It’s our language that enables us to have and manipulate ideas; determines our capacity to conceptualise, think and change. In these times it is crucial for individuals and organisations to change – to transform even. Yet many are crippled; locked in by the language of Management.

This was once again highlighted for me in a recent discussion around the purpose of business-team coaching. I objected to the apparently widespread unquestioned assumption that business development coaching is to achieve “alignment”. I explained that “In my lexicon, “alignment” has strong associations with “staying in line”, compliance, groupthink: some of the least productive aspects of Managerial behaviour and expectation.”

On reflection that objection was potentially risky behaviour with the MD leading the discussion and several senior managers participating in the conversation: I was apparently questioning an almost unquestionable Managerial prerogative - compliance. On top of that I seemed to imply almost heretically that Management is wrong. As if that wasn’t enough I had the temerity to use strange language: “lexicon”.

“What’s lexicon?" the MD demanded. "A company name?” .

When I later explained that my lexicon is the language that I think with, he joked, “Well I guess lexicon’s not in my lexicon.” But of course, by that stage it was.

Particularly interesting to me was that that discussion was part of a process to reconceptualise; to find new language to express the concept and practice of business development coaching. Language was essential to the change process.

Working against that change was the spirit of Managerial control: arguably achieved in large part through control of language. Managers can require that ideas and argument are communicated in language that they readily understand, as they understand it, so reinforcing convention. Jargon becomes a means of exclusion and of enhancing knowledge-power.

How then can we introduce new language and with it new concepts, new ideas, new possibilities?

Reading is one way, but most popular writers use conventional language because it is readily understood and that’s what sells. Nobody except academics read academic literature.

In my experience, the best way to introduce new language is in context, in conversation. Then the initial difficulties and misunderstandings can be explored: illustrated by real, shared experience.

Unfettered brainstorming is an effective way to break the Managerial spell and let the language flow, unhindered by evaluation and qualification: formal, colloquial, slang, foreign, technical, expert, outrageous, boring, relevant, irrelevant, reverent, irreverent, dangerous, and tame language.

PS My closest colleagues in that organisation have affectionately given me a new nickname: “Prof”. I’m not sure if that’s helpful or not. But it is a mark of affection. That’s good.

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