They’re Only Words….. Aren’t They?

by Rob Sams on August 3, 2016

in Rob Sams,Zero Harm

They’re Only Words….. Aren’t They?

Republished by request – Check out the new book by Rob Sams

Man giving a speech

“Words provide a voice to our deepest feelings. I tell you, words have started and stopped wars. Words have built and lost fortunes. Words have saved and taken lives. Words have won and lost great kingdoms. Even Buddha said, ‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

I recently came across this quote from The Rent Collector (2012)*. It got me thinking about how the words we use can influence our actions, beliefs and attitudes at work.

To understand the influence that ‘words’ have in our workplaces, it’s important to consider not only the language and the actual words used, but also to analyse the ‘discourse’ behind the words. ‘Discourse’, when considered in a social psychological context, does not focus so much on the literal meaning of words, rather, it refers to the ideology that is often ‘hidden’ within words and the language used.

As an example, I was reminded of the importance of words and discourse when I read the following article –

In this story, a company in the USA was reported to have an ‘open door policy’ in terms of sharing financial data, including people’s salaries, right up to CEO. My initial thoughts when I read the headline (the ‘words’) were that this must be a very progressive, open and honest organisation. If the CEO shares the details of his own salary he must hold no secrets. If he shares this information, then he must trust people, and they must trust him.

If you look beyond the headline however, and consider the discourse, the ideology hidden within the words, you may discover that it might not be about trust, openness and honesty. When one analyses the discourse behind words, they can reveal much more than they appear on the surface.

To illustrate this point, here is a quote from the CEO:

“If workers understood what types of performance and achievement earned certain people more money, he figured, perhaps they would be more motivated and successful, too.”

One may look at this statement and simply think that the CEO is being clear, transparent and honest about how people are paid across the organisation, and by doing this, the CEO is aiming to motivate people to achieve and to be successful.

In considering the discourse of the language used by the CEO, it becomes clear that the CEO believes that people will be motivated by, and be considered successful, if they earn more money? It appears as though the size of a person’s salary is how this organisation measures individual success. So if a high salary equals success, it raises the question of what influence the CEO’s words have on the actions, beliefs and attitudes in this workplace.

For example, can there be any thought of those who work in the organisation, as ‘people’, or, are they are just seen as creditors? If employees are only seen as creditors, and they are only motivated and rewarded by being paid more, will this drive engagement, loyalty, innovation and good customer service? Will this type of language prime the employees to focus solely on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ of their roles? That is, deliver and achieve at all cost, because after all, that is how success is measured.

With these type of actions, beliefs and attitudes at play, the effect of this type of policy on organisational culture may be the complete opposite of what the CEO set out to achieve. Instead of honesty, openness and trust, the CEO may actually find that his words, through their discourse, drive greed, selfishness and mistrust.

Lets consider a further quote from the CEO and the discourse of the words used:

“I’m challenged on salaries all the time,” Mackey explained. “‘How come you are paying this regional president this much, and I’m only making this much?’ I have to say, ‘because that person is more valuable. If you accomplish what this person has accomplished, I’ll pay you that, too.’”

In considering the discourse of these words, I wonder if the employees listening to the CEO may think something like, “They want me to trust them because I can see all this data, but what this really does for me, as a ‘number’ at this company, is make me feel resentful because I cannot achieve and I feel useless because I am not valuable.”

Again, the effect of the discourse of the language may well be the complete opposite of what the CEO had aimed for.

If we think for a moment about the discourse of language in the context of health and safety, I wonder if this is similar to organisations that talk about ‘Zero Harm’? The same people who think Zero Harm is aspirational and motivating may also think that the ‘open door policy’ in this story is equally aspirational and motivating. After all it’s promoting fairness, honesty and a ‘high trust organisation’, isn’t it? When you consider the discourse behind Zero Harm, I wonder if it is any different to the discourse of the language used by the CEO in this story?

Words do matter. I think Buddha may have got it right when he said ‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill”

The discourse of language primes our actions, beliefs and attitudes. What do you think the discourse of the ‘words’ used by the CEO in this story could mean for the employees of this organisation?

They’re only words, aren’t they?


· Wright, Cameron (2012). The Rent Collector. Shadow Mountain

Robert Sams

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  • Mark

    You know why you (you being a collective meaning, not you as in you) cannot answer my questions, because your ego does not like to look at itself. Its hard to say that which is true, as the truth hurts…you cannot say why you have the right to force ethics because its not moral to do so, your answer will question your ego and that is a hard thing to do, question your ego. Your ego gets angry when challlaged.

    So, who are you to promote your thinking? Who are you you doing it for?

    This question is not directed at you personally, but I am sure your ego thinks it is..

    Oneday you might see what I am saying, when you wake. But for now you may think its madness.

  • Mark

    whoa…Interesting how you find it ok to say this about someone else work, yet you get all upset when given to you…I was having a joke and regardless of the bias you trio have and whatever private emails get around, i don’t care anymore. If you cannot handle feedback or opinions ot flip sides, don’t post, I learnt this from my very first reply to my very first topic on this site…everyone is so serious its sad…

  • Rob Sams

    Mark – as per your comments in relation to the photo (which I don’t choose), perhaps you shouldn’t read my articles if it causes you concern. I’d be ok with that, it might make it easier for you. I’d hate to put you out.

  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for your feedback Andrew, appreciated

  • Mark

    I nearly was not going to read your article because of the photo used, it instantly made me think of a heavy handed, compliance focus to a ‘Telling by force only Leadership’. I’d love to hear more from Sam about why he chose this photo…LOL

    One thing that stood out for me was that you really thought that there was such a thing as an open and honest organisation, I don’t think such an organization exists, such as you don’t think (as I do also) that zero harm is achievable or a goal (depending on the use/meaning of the word!!).

    I also find it interesting in this article that people are concerned about who is making what (this could show their motivation/culture), this leads me to believe that this organization operates not on intrinsic motivation, but on extrinsic rewards. Maybe this job is not rewarding, thus the motivation to supply labor is the monetary reward as many jobs are. Not all are lucky enough to have jobs that they love doing, where the reward is the labor itself (volunteer work etc). Take money out of this picture and put in that the best person got a pencil…then people who did not get a pencil would be angry, this is the culture and most likely a high turn around workplace.

    Maybe in this ‘culture’ the CEO is spot on…and that the CEO is being clear, transparent and honest about how people are paid across this organisation, and by doing this, the CEO is aiming to motivate people to achieve and to be successful by the reward people understand and want (money)…hence why the article states “Whole Foods is an intriguing example of a company that has successfully bridged the gap between soft-hearted values and logic-driven business acumen,” the authors write. “The combination has resulted in a highly motivated workforce with a deep sense of community who value productivity.”.

    Maybe this this comment is true…maybe…

    I have more concern over this comment “soft-hearted values and logic-driven”

    People do get paid more by what they provide, this is just the way it is (i pick 2 apples and you pick one, then i should either work half the day or get paid twice as much…now there’s one for you). And not everyone will be a manager or CEO (point here is that even without money the motivator is the position/power/status), but this does not make peoples drive diminish as they know there place. Maybe the person earning more money does deserve the higher salary/bonus, maybe they understand more about when to put sales on, what days people shop more, maybe these regional presidents who get paid more go home and study the market, maybe they, through their own research know what people want more or less of. Maybe they motivate their workers in a way the other presidents don’t. Maybe the ones complaining about the lower salaries, are lazy and do not go that extra bit to succeed.

    So Sam, who are you to question the ‘ethics’ of this company/CEO and or what motivates this/his workforce. You assume you know but you are not in that CEO position, therefore you know nothing of the situation, therefore you have no right to question the ethics. If you had good reason to base your assumption on, and you had all the facts, then maybe you can make question.

    As for your question; What do you think the discourse of the ‘words’ used by the CEO in this story could mean for the employees of this organisation?…I or you have no idea, as we don’t know the culture and it is not for me or for you to question the ethics of this organization or that of the CEO.

    Now I have answered your question, how about you answer mine…

    What do you mean by that which we (safety) are “change managers’? and; What is your agenda to manage the change of followers? And why do you think safety practitioners and professionals ‘must’ be leaders?

  • Andrew Carass

    HEADING,( They, re only words) Well now here is a subject .the one that sticks in my mind always my mam saying keep your shoes clean, first thing a employer would look down at your shoes and see were they clean. Its kind strange as your growing up well when I have kids I am going to treat them differently but the funny thing when you have children your just the same don’t forget to wash your teeth and clean out your ears And make sure you have all your books for school and so on and so on. Personally I think the world is gone more aggressive in its manner toward people racism. Lost Respect for our elders. and for such a money rich world some times you do not need to go to a third world to see poverty it is wright here in our own backyard And the weather conditions are getting worse by the year and the government keep telling us its not the pollution and the ozone has got huge, just lets hope we can leave our children a secure and more brighter future…

    Kindest Regards
    Andrew Carass

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