August 5, 2013
Language Matters by Joanne Ladley
According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, the Korean government stepped in to improve the safety ratings of their national airline. The first thing the government did was to declare that the language of the cockpit was English. Pilots needed to understand and be confident in their ability to speak English so they could properly direct the gruff New York air traffic controllers when their airplane really was out of gas and needed to land NOW. The pilot’s improved English language skills gave them a confidence they didn’t have before and consequently changed the safety record of the airline dramatically.
At Kitchen Kettle Village, my family’s business, we were looking for a common language so all of our team members could understand their role in our strategic plan. The language of athletics seemed to fit the bill. The plan itself is called our “Game Worth Playing.” We refer to the senior management team as “Coaches” and the individual store managers as “Captains.” The employees are “Team Members.” During orientation, new team members learn how to play:
- How to score – ensure guests leave happy
- Where the boundaries of the playing field are – we tour the entire Village
- How we restart play when the ball is out of bounds – coming in late the first time
- How a foul is different from out of bounds – speaking disrespectfully to a team member or guest
- What will get you ejected from the game – stealing
We also explain that we’re playing the game of basketball and we’re looking to win the NBA Championship. If you’re a baseball player, go find a baseball team. You’ll be happier and so will we.
Putting our plan in the language of athletics makes it easier for people to relate the expectations of the job with their behavior at work. A consistent language makes it easier for everyone who works at Kitchen Kettle Village to know our expectations of them. They understand better how to ensure our guests have a fun experience while they’re visiting us. That understanding brings us back to the goal of our Game Worth Playing.
Changing behavior is tough work. But painting a picture in our mind’s eye can help serve to create a model of behavior. Language is the verbal expression of that picture. How you describe that picture to others can help them model a behavior you’d like to see happen. And describing that picture as clearly, as consistently and as simply as possible makes it easier for everyone to follow through on your expectations for their behavior. Language really does matter.