The Ripple Effect: Understanding Language and Influence
How your words and actions shape organisational culture
As a manager, you find yourself in a unique position of responsibility and influence. However, while your responsibilities dominate your day to day, it is easy to forget the influence you hold. A momentary lapse in judgment, a harsh truth spoken, or uncaught body language can cause an unintended ripple effect, polluting your organisational culture both locally within your team and potentially even globally throughout the entire organisation.
To succeed in a managerial role then, it is essential to master the art of navigating and mitigating snap judgements, personal flaws and cognitive biases. But how can you maintain self-awareness and stay true to yourself, while simultaneously fostering a positive culture conducive to success? Throughout the following paragraphs hopefully the answer to that question will become clear, but before we delve into a solution we must first better understand the problem.
What is influence?
Influence refers to the capacity to have an effect on the thoughts, behaviours, or actions of others. It involves the ability to shape or sway opinions, decisions, and outcomes, often through leadership, or example. Influence can manifest in various forms, such as social influence, where individuals impact each other's attitudes and behaviours within a group, or professional influence, where leaders guide and motivate their team members.
Now that we've defined what is meant by the term influence in the context of this article, let's now analyse how our choice of language and position of influence can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.
The impact of language
It is clear to see that a leader's actions and use of language extends beyond the immediate interaction from which it originates. Looking back at our definition of influence, I have highlighted what I believe to be the key points:
To have an effect on the thoughts, behaviours, or actions of others i.e. what we say and do has the potential to immediately impact those around us and often in ways that isn't immediately obvious.
To shape or sway opinions, decisions, and outcomes i.e. others might think highly of our opinions and passing comments could lead to unintended decision making and outcomes if taken out of context or not fully understood.
Individuals impact each other's attitudes and behaviours within a group i.e. we are also influenced by those around us and should be conscious of the messaging that we permit others in the group to share.
Breaking down the definition in this way demonstrates how nuanced and subtle influence can be, as well as how important it is to be clear with our use of language. Any ambiguity is an opportunity to invite misinterpretation and confusion guaranteeing that the original intention is misunderstood. This is more noticeable with messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, where instant messages can be void of essential characteristics for meaning such as intonation, tone and emotion.
The dark side of influence is something that we don't usually consider in the moment but come to regret in future. Here is a recent example from LinkedIn where Duolingo's use of the word "quitter" was being interpreted as derogatory, rather than motivational/humorous which I assume their intention to have been. Reading the comments it is interesting to see how people's opinions differ based on their background and locality.
How influence shapes culture
While it's largely common sense that influence shapes culture, it is worth knowing why and how. Edgar Schein, a well known and respected management professor at MIT, argues that "culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin." Having spent his career as an organisational expert, his experience studying corporations has led him to believe that culture is not a collection of mission statements, slogans and values but instead a product of a leader's interactions with their teams.
Ron Friedman references and summarises Schein's research in The Best Place To Work, highlighting that there are four main ways in which a leader can influence culture:
What leaders pay attention to (and what they ignore) i.e. where leaders decide to place their focus infers what they consider important and a priority. Always focussing on one item or always ignoring another, subconsciously suggests to the team what is and isn't important.
Emotional outbursts i.e. what causes a leader to experience negative emotions such as anger, frustration and stress, signals what a leader truly cares about.
Reactions to incidents and crises i.e. how a leader handles pressure and crisis creates a model for how team members will handle them in future.
How leaders allocate rewards and status i.e. what actions and behaviours a leader chooses to positively reinforce are what others are likely to repeat and demonstrate.
Clearly then, even the most casual or innocent remark could have long-term implications and consequences that shape the future of a workplace culture. In the following section I will share some real life examples that I've noticed from my own experiences.
Examples from the workplace
When you take the time to reflect and analyse why the things are the way they are, you begin to notice correlations between the way leaders act and the environment that surrounds them. Here are some examples of what I have noticed over the years and how they might have affected culture both positively and negatively:
Focussing on the edge cases - As we now know, what leaders pay attention to quickly permeates throughout the team. I've previously worked with engineering managers who have perhaps given too much attention to the edge cases of a particular piece of work. While sound in theory, after all no body wants to ship a broken feature, placing too much emphasis on finding edge cases created an environment in which things were overengineered and overcomplicated. Unfortunately, this impacted the feasibility of extending features and the refinement of new work was framed in the mindset of "what could go wrong" ultimately limiting innovation.
Pandering to problem clients - When a client complains and is given preferential treatment in response to resolve their issue, it creates an environment in which he who shouts the loudest wins. It puts the client on a pedestal and elevates their position even above those in the team. Sadly, when this happens not only does the team find themselves in a position where they have to create one-off/temporary solutions, to often minor problems, but it also comes at the price of working on something else. From my own experiences, when this happens it impacts the engagement, motivation and morale of those involved as well as the potential future of the business.
Promoting ownership and accountability - If you're looking to create trust and a high performance team, then promoting ownership is one way to do so. When a manager cares deeply about accountability and rewards those who hold themselves accountable for their actions, it signals to others that ownership is important. Working in an environment where ownership is not only encouraged but expected, wonderful things happen. Team member confidence increases, collaboration happens naturally and issues are resolved quickly.
With these examples in mind, lets turn our attention to consciously building positive culture through the use of Schein's observations and our understanding of language and influence.
Building positive culture
In the course of this article we have mostly concentrated on the negative consequences of influence. However, while it is possible to create a negative culture almost absentmindedly, it is just as easy to create a positive culture consciously.
Edgar Schein's key observations on corporate culture provide us with a framework in which we can operate. By taking advantage of the knowledge and the psychology behind his observations, we can use them to intentionally influence our workplace environment. This is the ripple effect in action.
By understanding and leveraging these points you can influence change in almost any area:
Consciously focus on the things you care about as a leader and use praise and recognition to promote positive reinforcement.
Limit your emotional outbursts or use them, sparingly, to your advantage by ensuring its over something that you deem important.
Keep a cool head in times of crisis and use them as an opportunity to lead by example.
As such if communication is something that is important to you, here is just one in which you can use the actions above to influence a more communicative culture:
Give recognition and praise to good communication, be it client facing, internal documentation or otherwise.
Don't ignore bad communication as that would suggest that it is permissible. Instead highlight how it can be improved through actionable feedback.
Demonstrate that communication is important by creating metrics/OKRs and making it a focus point. For example, set a coverage goal for internal documentation or during refinement sessions make a point to consider what communication might be needed both internally and externally.
Use emotion tactfully. If there is a particularly bad example of communication (or lack of communication) you could consider using emotion to signal how important it is that it doesn't happen again. However, outbursts of emotion could have other side effects such as loss of team trust and fear of conflict.
Finally, if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being in a crisis, use it as an opportunity to demonstrate good communication and lead by example. This could be done as easily as emphasising the need to communicate the incident internally e.g. by communicating the issue to support so they can be proactive rather than reactive to incoming help cases. Or it could be used as a learning opportunity by writing an incident report/conducting a post-mortem.
While the given example of improving communication is a simple one, hopefully it illustrates the potential of the underlying framework.
To conclude then, these days it is simply not enough to only focus on your team, you also have to focus on yourself. Without self-awareness and introspection to keep yourself in check, the signals you subconsciously transmit could set your team and workplace down a negative path. The consequences of which you could be dealing with for years to come. As such, take the time to reflect and ensure you are fostering a positive workplace culture rather than a negative one. Regularly ask yourself the following questions:
Are you focussing on the right tasks?
Do you show emotion at work?
How do you act under pressure?
Which behaviours do you publicly reward?
What language do you use when you talk about team members?
By taking action, you are committing to building a workplace where influence is wielded responsibly, and language is a force for positive change. Remember, the impact of your actions today will shape the future of your team and organisation. Take the initiative and start consciously building a workplace culture that enables you and your team to thrive.
The Best Place To Work by Ron Friedman
Organisational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein