Poor Team Retention? Mind Your Language

Poor Team Retention? Mind Your Language

James Sandrini 2017/11/17

The language we use in employee-relations discourse had been for many years borrowed and to an extent, plagiarised from other business realms – production, engineering, and marketing. It has been said that ‘the limits of our language are the limits of our world’ – could our world-view of employee-relations be limited by the words we choose to use?

So, long as human beings were both the means for sourcing raw material and the main tool of processing it, human capacities were broadly accepted as the standard calibre to measuring work. Labor hours, days and even years were acceptable units. The land was being divided by the plot size workable by a single person in a single day etc. However, Industrialism and the growing integration of machines in every aspect of work made it necessary to recalibrate.

Industrial engineering thus turned into ergonomics, and humans, in turn, became resources. For over a century, management sciences and industrial engineering paired to perfect the employment of humans as parts of a system.

Regardless of their political ideology and allegiances, manufacturing efficiency and productivity rates were used by every nation and organisation to estimate its strength and relative position compared with the competition. Taylorism was the name of the game.

"Industrial engineering turned into ergonomics, and humans, in turn, became resources"

That remained true until late in the 20th Century, when increased democratization of the marketplace, brought about by technological leaps made in transportation and communication, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the growing popularity of Western culture, forced the language of business-employee relations to shift, and adjust to a more sophisticated reality.

There entered the ‘consumer’ jargon into the human-resources discourse. Terminology hitherto exclusive to the world of marketing such as attraction, acquisition, management and retention began dominating the employment realm as employees too, benefited from increased access to information and choice, and seemed more than willing to manipulate this new liberty.

The language we use to describe people within our organizations has evolved from that of production units to resources and elements in the production chain and finally, to that used when handling consumers. It is an encouraging progress, as we keep getting closer to the real thing, which is to describe, and manage people for what they are – human beings, free agents and masters of their own destiny.

"We acknowledge that employees are human beings, but we choose to treat them as infantile"

But here the logic begins to fail us, and progress halts. We acknowledge that employees are human beings, but we choose to treat them as infantile. Commitment, communication, discipline, planning and education are fundamental requirements for the success of any human endeavour; no project could do without them.

But when dealing with our ‘children’ employees – we replace commitment with passion, communication with engagement, education with training, achievements with incentives and those dreaded perks.

Blinded by their new-found liberty, some employees earnestly believe that changing 3 jobs a year is in their best interest, a minimal increase in wage the only test required. That, or working fewer hours, or working closer to home. This philosophy is self-destructive in the long run, but it requires education (as opposed to training) to argue this case.

However, by giving in to this philosophy, we feed the very destructive attitudes we hope to conquer. The burden of keeping an employee in his job should be equally spread between employer and employee. Any parent should know that candies are no good source for motivation or persuasion.

As sugar stimulation threshold grows more sweets are needed, and the lesson is never learned. The same goes for employee-perks. Passion is good, but passion is not the secret for holding any long-term relationship through the tremors of time. Engagement cannot replace good, healthy communication and, there is no amount of training that can replace good life-education.

Language is a key human capacity. It can put a man on the moon. But it can also restrict innovation and impede progress. Where we lack words or use the wrong ones, we are simply treading on a wrong path. Employees are free agents, adult masters of their own destiny, and we should find more suitable words to describe, manage and educate them.

If you find that your organization has too much engagement and not enough communication, too much recruitment and not enough retention, too many perks but no real commitment, you might want to review the language you choose to use.

This article was written by Barak Peled, Founder & Coach at gistLondon.

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