How Words Shape Corporate Culture


Organizational language shapes its behavior. Can you guess what company is known for these phrases?

“Done is better than perfect.”

“Move fast and break things.”

“The riskiest thing is to take no risks.”

They’re from Facebook, but this kind of official and unofficial lingo is present in all organizations.

Around Enron, you would have heard phrases like “We’re an aggressive culture,” and “Guys with Spikes,” and “Money is the only thing that motivates.”

Ritz-Carlton, on the other hand, is well known for its loftier statement: “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

This kind of organizational talk sets the stage—grants the permission—for the behavior that follows. Whether the words are official statements or off-handed comments, what is said by leaders and crafted by professional communicators directly nurtures certain organizational behaviors—intended or not.  

Because of its wide-ranging impact, leadership and official corporate language must be held to a high standard.

Those who shape the message in an organization can elevate, inspire or prohibit certain types of organizational behavior. Especially in a world where words travel with lightning speed, messages need to be developed with great care.

In his Harvard Business Review Blog “How Language Shapes Your Organization,” Kevin Allen suggests that we think about the “legacy phrases” in our own organization and ask whether they need erasing or replacing. His article is an important read—and worthy of reflection.

What legacy phrases does your organization live by?