The reading level for this article is Novice

Changing the rules in the middle of the game, moving the goalposts, two-minute drill, no harm/no foul, franchise player, lay up, knockout blow, on the ropes, quarterback, the best defense is a good offense, three-pointer, at the buzzer, brush back pitch, hole in one, skating to the puck, ground game, blocking and tackling. Lay siege, barrage, trench warfare, sniper, collateral damage, surgical strike, campaign, carpet bombing, shot across the bow, frontal attack, unconditional surrender, guerilla warfare.

How many of these terms or catch-phrases have you seen or heard or read in presentations, meetings, conference calls, management books, or on motivational posters in the company break room? Enough is enough in my view. Our business culture needs to move past these and similar terms that convey conflict, and assume a predominately male sensibility. We need to develop a new lexicon that is much more inclusive and much less hostile.

For decades, there has been a working assumption in business that sports—and even war—offers a language of common understanding and also a language that supports a business culture that values winning above all and sees it as a zero sum game—our gain is necessarily someone else’s loss.

While some sports and even martial metaphors have become so ingrained in our language that everyone understands them (who doesn’t know what a "time out" is?), so much of this language is obscure to those who aren’t sports fans or military history buffs. As more women, people of color, and gays and lesbians are assuming positions of leadership in the workplace, the language of business can and I believe will change to reflect a new, more diverse and inclusive workforce.

As important as increasing the inclusiveness of language is moving past the hostility of so much of the sports and especially military language used in the workplace.

How many of you have been told to read SunTzu’s "The Art of War" as a guide to business strategy? Or "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun"?

The truth is that business is not a zero sum game. Yes, it’s often very competitive, but success doesn’t always have to be measured by someone else’s failure. This kind of thinking is toxic, and it is ultimately not beneficial. When people are conditioned to view competitors as the enemy, they are closed off to new ways of thinking, including partnering with competitors where it makes sense, or viewing what they do as growing the pie for everyone, rather than preventing someone else from having a slice. In most fields, there is enough business for more than one competitor to thrive and taking a broader, less combative approach may serve you better in the long run.

So when you go to work tomorrow, try to notice how often these phrases come up, or whether you are using them yourself. And when it happens, ask a few simple, evaluative questions. Would your Latino co-worker or Asian-American supervisor, or lesbian CEO understand or relate to the term? Would any of them be offended by it?

Also ask whether the term frames issues in an overly competitive, us-versus-them manner. If so, ask whether the business is really served by having such a narrow, essentially hostile and defensive view of the marketplace.

Chances are, the test will lead you toward an understanding that business needs a new metaphoric foundation. It’s a different world today, and it can be a much better one.   When we reframe our language to be more inclusive and collaborative in nature, I believe that we’ll all experience a higher level of success!

© 2005

This Business article was written by Jim Jenkins on 3/18/2005

Jim Jenkins, Creative Visions Consulting