Create a Winning Culture with One Key Word!

Open book with falling letters on green vintage background. Create a Winning Culture with One Key Word!

If you want to drive your culture towards success then be careful about the words you choose. The language used in your organization will shape the behaviors of the people. If the talk is all about customers first, employees will place emphasis on serving the customer. If the conversation is about cost reduction, the actions will be focused on driving efficiencies.

Choose your words wisely

However, sometimes we aren’t conscious about the language in our companies. I remember once working in an organization that used a large number of third party contractors to serve our customers. During a discussion about how we could improve, there was a lot of dialog around the short comings of the contractors. Over and over again the contractors took the brunt of the blame for all things wrong. Finally I stopped the conversation. I had to address this ongoing mantra “the contractors, the contractors, the contractors.”

“The way you all go on about these contractors, it sounds like they’re aliens from outer space,” I exclaimed. “Do they really arrive every morning by space ship, transform into humans wearing our company uniforms and head out in their service trucks to visit our customers? And, do they return every evening to the mother ship, change back into their alien form and head off into space? The last time I looked, they were just like us. Living in the same neighborhoods, mothers and fathers, putting their pants on one leg at a time.”

I was met with silence and stunned faces. I let the silence hang in the room. Then finally one woman spoke up. “Maybe we should stop calling them contractors.” She paused.  “Maybe we should start calling them business partners.”

Creating a paradigm shift

In that moment, you could feel the shift in the room. Now the discussion was focused on being a partner with this group.  Their failure was our failure and their success would drive our success. Needless to say when we went out to our contractors and starting speaking the language of business partners they were wondering what Kool-Aid we’d all been drinking. It had been a long time since they were treated as equals.

However this shift in language created a huge change in our behaviors and as a result it positively transformed our culture and our bottom line.

What if work was play

Many of the most innovative companies are known for their ability to play. They are consciously trying to manage the language in their organization. They don’t want people to come to work, they want them to come to play. They don’t have workstations, they have play stations. Office spaces are built to spark conversations and collaborations.

From the outside it may seem that these companies are just building a different level of employee perks. These are not perks, they are part of the language of play. Play has been deemed as critical to creating the innovation required to be successful.

What’s your key word?

When you listen to the language in your workplace, what is it telling you? Is it a language of blame or control? Is it about service and quality? What are the key words you need to have in your organizational culture in order to drive success? I’m not talking about the core values on the wall, although they will be related.

For example, I knew we needed a core value of teamwork to make our division successful. Moving from a culture of blame to a culture of partnership was the first step towards teamwork. The leaders at Google, Zappo’s and Shopify see innovation as key to their success. They also understand the need to have a language of play to support innovation in their workplace.

Whether its partnership, play or some other word, once you start framing all your conversations around this key word you will discover a shift in how work gets done.  It will also drive process, policy and maybe even the physical structure of your office space.

Spend some time this week listening to your company’s unique dialect. Is there a word you need to remove from its speech? What word can you introduce to enhance your organization’s performance?


  • Introducing an action word to the brain opens up possibilities and lines of thought that were closed because of the mentality of the group. Culture is complex and company’s understanding that it is the people within the organization that come first and not the customers have a much higher success rate. Treating contractors as business partners, simply changing a word as you have stated opens up entirely new lines of thought and how we communicate, a simple revelation to the group allowed them to grow. win win!

  • Thanks for the comment Neil. It’s always a challenge to open up new lines of thought, however as you pointed out, the benefits to growth and opportunity can be quite powerful.

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