The Next Practice: Build a new vocabulary to effect business change

‘8 – Step Process for Leading Change’; ‘Unfreezing-Change-Refreezing’; or ‘7S Model of Change’ are but some of the many commonly accepted frameworks of orchestrating organizational change.  They have appeal because they are linear, they promise efficiency, and are standardized to be applicable across organizations. But they ignore the hallmark of change—that it is messy. Irrespective of the clean prescriptions of such models, those actuating or receiving change can vouch that there is very little about change that can fit into 7 boxes or 8 steps.

For change agents to grasp this messiness, and be able to do something about it, I describe an alternate worldview. It begins with suspending the fundamental assumption behind clean categories such as this, i.e. change is objective, and can be transmitted to the receiver in a language that is simply a conduit of desired goals. Or stated differently, it asks for embracing a worldview that is relational and appreciates the power of language. This view suggests that ‘words create worlds[1]’, and to bring about change we need to change the way we talk about change[2].

This lens assumes that language is not neutral. It suggests that the words that a community uses hold deep beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable, and hence influence the actions one takes. For example, the word ‘business organization’ brings with it beliefs of fiduciary obligations and economic responsibilities, and hence initiates practices that revolve around making profits, generating livelihoods, or meeting shareholder expectations. On the other hand, the word ‘social organization’ is underpinned by beliefs such as stakeholder obligations and societal responsibilities. It thus prescribes actions such as generating common good, or meeting expectations of all stakeholders. The same can be said of words such as work-home; or supervisor-subordinate. The categories that seem to be objectively given are actually constructed and sustained by everyday use in interactions. More importantly, the taken-for-grantedness of the assumptions behind words makes them hard to dislodge and hence always privilege certain choices over others. So a business that engages in community work may face criticism because it is deemed to be compromising with what it is intended to do—ignoring the view that the ‘intended to do’ has been constructed by talk between people and not a truth existing ‘out there’.

Hence, from this perspective change implies bringing in new vocabulary within the organization, which would bring with it new practices (new practices feed back into changing/sustaining the vocabulary—a point I do not elaborate here). But as stated above, the taken-for-grantedness of language makes change hard and messy. New words are either rejected or changed to fit into the existing repertoire. For example, ‘social responsibility of business’ is (re)framed as ‘business case for social responsibility’ or ‘doing well by doing good’, words that continue to privilege the assumptions that the word ‘business organization’ hold. The practices that the new vocabulary might bring with it can also be rejected outright, passively resisted, or locally changed to fit the existing worldview. For example, business – NGO partnership to create social benefit is a practice connected to frame such as ‘social responsibility of business’. This practice can be deemed inefficient by line managers and never adopted; may be adopted but criticized for the lack of focus that social organizations inherently hold; or modified by holding NGO partners to expectations of efficiency and delivery akin to any other implementation partner.

To infuse new vocabulary for change hence is an uphill but critical task for change agents. It takes seriously the assertion that change must begin by building on the existing repertoire of words. Thus, social responsibility of business may be better accepted as ‘just another way of doing business’, at least in the beginning. It asks leadership to create a context where the assumptions behind the language in the organization can be questioned. Thus, by creating structures in line with the new vocabulary and providing the space for talking about the reactions they generate, leadership can unlock deeply embedded assumptions. At a larger scale, by bringing all stakeholders together for a dialogue, such as in an Appreciate Inquiry Summit (see ‘Expert Speak’ in this issue) business can begin shifting its assumptions such as those about its fundamental responsibilities.  It further invites experimenting with alternate framings and labels as the change unfolds. For example, instead of labeling what we (the privileged) can do for them (the not-so-privileged), business can ask how we (us and them) can create a better tomorrow for everyone. Finally, it appreciates that change is continuous, and the work of leadership does not begin and end in a quarter dedicated to change. New practices will influence the assumptions behind the new vocabulary and hence it is in everyday conversations that leadership can enable the change to be maintained or changed.


[1] This phrase was first used by Ann Hartman in 1991 in an editorial debating the right of speech against political correctness with reference to racist remarks on college campuses. She describes how words shape our worlds and hence language holds more power than we appreciate.

[2] Readers who are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of this worldview are referred to ‘Social Construction’, ‘Constructivism’, or ‘Postmodernism’.

About the author
Garima Sharma is a doctoral candidate in Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. She has served as a reviewer for journals, edited books and conferences. She has published in the Journal of Change Management.
 As a Research Associate at PeopleWiz, her key focus is to develop research based assessment tools, provide insights on application of people management concepts for emerging companies and lead internal capability development of PeopleWiz consultants.

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