The Power of Language

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of language lately. There was an interesting discussion on ASAE & The Center’s Executive Management listserve not too long ago about changing the name of a Board of Directors to a Board of Trustees, hoping that would help them act more responsibly. There were a lot of interesting responses (including an awful one blaming irresponsible behavior on the younger generations). But in terms of the name change, there was consensus in the responses that a name change would not be enough to generate a behavior change.

I agree a single name change isn’t enough, but I pushed back a bit, because I know that language and word choice can have more impact than we expect sometimes. In Michael Roberto’s Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, he mentions the power of language in either supporting or inhibiting candor and open discussion of conflict in organizations. He gives a good example:

We also wrote…about the language system at Children’s Hospital in Minnesota. In that case, the terminology often used at the hospital when discussing medical accidents conveyed a culture of “accusing, blaming, and criticizing” individuals. When Morath too charge at Children’s, she created a new set of terms for discussing accidents, with the words chosen carefully so as to stress a systemic view of the causes of medical accidents as well as an emphasis on learning from mistakes. The language shift helped to raise people’s willingness to discuss medical errors, and in fact, during Morath’s first year at the hospital, official reports of medical accidents rose considerably. The evidence clearly indicated that people were not making more errors, but instead, they had become more comfortable about talking about problems in an open, frank, manner.


  1. 01.03.2007 at 8:10 am

    Jamie, as you know well, we agree completely about the extraordinary influence of language on the way we make sense of our world. On this subject, I have often quoted Dee Hock, who says, “Language is only secondarily the means by which we communicate. It is primarily the means by which we think.” He is spot on.
    I also value the work of Robert Kegan, one of my graduate school professors, who argues that leaders, beyond their other roles, are also leaders of “language communities.” It is a responsibility they can choose to accept or ignore, but either way it remains a part of their leadership.
    In the association community, language changes are a huge stumbling block to the success of the organizations we serve. At the moment, many association leaders appear to be torn between their long-standing ties to the old, familiar lexicon and their extremely cautious interest in the new lexicon. Until we are able to bridge this gulf, the struggle for meaningful association growth will persist.