Meaning Guide

What are your organisation’s values?

I don’t mean can you remember them, I mean what are they? Here’s a thought experiment: if you were to re-title all of your organisation’s “Our values” posters so that they better described what they actually were, what would you write?

So, instead of:

You might have:

Maybe leadership behaviours and desired culture aren’t very aligned, therefore:

Perhaps the company’s been bought out, and the values of the old company are still up on the walls, but don’t get referred to by the new owners:

Now, pause for a second on this one. When I said “something the last management team left behind”, what “something” was I referring to?

Was it the poster itself, i.e. the previous management launched it, loved it, and have now left it behind?

Or was it the actual qualities listed on the poster – maybe “left behind” implies the last management team exemplified this set of values, which left an indelible impression on the culture when they moved on. Perhaps.

What’s interesting is that both these meanings can be true at the same time, even though they might seem at first glance to be mutually contradictory. Watzlawick et al (1967) use these kinds of paradoxes (what they call “semantical antinomies”) as a jumping off point for exploring all sorts of pathologies in personal and professional relationships. The pattern is that we confuse levels of thought and language in our everyday interactions, and while it’s pretty easy to understand in theory, it can be fiendishly difficult to spot in practice. Here’s a simple example:

(a) London has seven million inhabitants.
(b) London has two syllables.

It doesn’t take long to see that the word “London” has different meanings in (a) and (b). But the pattern is not just that they have different meanings, it’s that they are at different logical levels. Watzlawick follows earlier theorists in labelling these levels as “object language” and “meta-language”:

  • “London” in (a) is object language – it stands for something in the world (the object of the communication, in this case the capital of the UK), whereas
  • “London” in (b) is meta-language – it stands for the word that stands for the capital of the UK.

It’s the difference between talking about something and talking about talking about something. Our brains naturally steer us away from thinking too hard about this kind of thing, because it gets very taxing very quickly. Meta-languages are recursive: read the first sentence of this paragraph and you’ll see that it’s talking about talking about talking about something. Which means that that last sentence was therefore talking about talking about talking about talking about … and so on.

Something very similar happens as individuals are promoted through organisations. When people on the factory floor talk about production and processes and quality, they’re talking about actual people, performing actual tasks, with actual things, in an actual location. It’s object language. To middle management though, “production” becomes a number, “processes” become flow charts, and “quality” might be a Powerpoint slide left by a QMS consultant. It’s meta-language. Those artefacts – the numbers, the flow charts, the Powerpoint slides – then become the objects that senior management are talking about. And so on.

As concepts become more and more abstract, it’s very easy for the meaning of the words to become completely divorced from actual things in the world. Their meaning instead becomes more about the relationship between the people who use them – management create a coherent identity around the production of abstract words that sound good to them, even if they don’t mean much to lower levels. “We have a vision”, “we have a strategy”, “we have a plan”, but do we? Or do we just have a set of documents?

There’s no easy way to overcome this problem without taking the time to actually learn to speak the languages of each different level, or at the very least to find translators who can move fluently between them. This is one of the arguments that the Hopper brothers make in The Puritan Gift against the professionalisation of management: if no one at executive level has a career history in the company (or maybe even the industry), then what shared language do they use to engage and validate their thinking with the people several levels below, who actually do the work?

Everyone says they want more communication, but when communication is paradoxical in this way, it can actually makes things worse. The most famous aphorism from Watzlawick’s book is that “we cannot not communicate”; the question is not whether or not communication is happening, it’s at what level is it happening? If, every time a leadership team refers to “our values”, the people in the organisation immediately think this:

… then the immediate problem is not that the message isn’t getting through (and that we therefore need a better campaign, or a better poster, or whatever), it’s that the message that is getting through is saying the opposite of what was intended: it may say “we have values” at the meta level, but it says “we have no values” at the object level, because the object is a laminated poster, rather than a set of behavioural principles that are evident in the culture. And if this is the organisational norm, then it also implies that there are no safe channels for this meta-information to be fed back to leadership, because if it was then they would presumably stop peppering everyone with words that don’t have meaning. In other words, the form of the communciation is saying more about what the organisation actually values than the content is. Communication is happening, it’s just in one direction, and stating the opposite of what was intended.

The point here isn’t specifically about values, but about the pattern that arises when the meaning of a communication becomes divorced from the everyday reality of the audience. Why not try the re-titling thought experiment with whatever document you happen to be working on. If your target audience was to give it an honest title that described what they thought it actually was, rather than what it porports to be, what title might they give it?


Subscribe to new content:


Subscribe to new content: