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Words and Actions

Oct 16, 2020

In this first episode of the new series we talk about change management and the role of language in successfully bringing this change about. 


In the introduction, we underscore the importance of language in terms of its potential to construct and mold reality (which was also addressed in episodes 1 and 2 of season 1), especially during sensemaking processes of a reality that does not exist yet. In order to make sense, it is established there need to be obvious reasons for the changes that are implemented, but at the same time we observe there are different types of changes, the justification of which is obvious in some cases (think of the COVID-19 measures), but less so in others (think of evolutionary changes, which require a response now, but which will only have a noticeable impact in the long run). Climate change is one example, but reference can also be made to necessary changes fed by technological revolutions (e.g. the implementation of social media in corporate communication), and interestingly, cases where change is fueled by a discrepancy between the corporate values and the actual communicative practices within the company that seem to undermine or at least question their truthfulness.

We have a chat with Katie Best about this phenomenon of ‘culture leaks’ in a short interview. She's the founder and director of the agency Taylorbest ( and she is also a visiting researcher at King's College London Business School and head tutor on the LSE's MBA essentials programmes. The examples she gives nicely illustrate the contrast between sometimes rather formal style of communication one would, for instance, associate a Westbrooks bookshop with and the fairly direct A4 message by the exasperated employee addressing the customer "Please, please shut the door behind you”. These ‘leaks’ provide an insight into what may actually going on behind the scenes in terms of corporate value, so much so that the company’s adherence to these values may be questioned (check our episode on the toxic company culture at Enron, if you haven’t done so already). 


Reference can also made to the many (more harmless) examples we can see nowadays urging people to follow the health and safety rules, many of which are directive, creative and even humoristic in nature, regardless of company culture ("Don't sit at this table. This chair can't be used. Make sure you keep a gap between yourselves”). And there are plenty of other examples out there where the urgency of the situation justifies the type of language and imagery that is being used, regardless of the official image the company wants to associated with. 


These examples also bring us back to the importance of language use in bringing about these changes. Many of these instantiations are short, clear, snappy and directive sentences, which may not only work well when it comes to giving concrete instructions, but also during the important process of sense-giving as well. Erika gives a nice example from the Apollo space programme in flight director Gene Kranz’s speech, which came to be known as "The Kranz dictum". On his watch, the United States had lost 3 of its finest members of the astronaut corps, and it had happened during a routine simulation session. This is part of his speech:


From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough“ and “Com-

petent.“ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do.

We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.


Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found

short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave

this meeting today you will go to your office, and the first thing you will do there is to write

“Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when

you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and



For a complete rendition listen to the interesting podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, episode 4:


Tough and competent. Short sentences. Clear language. A message that makes sense of the lives that were lost. Plain and simple, repetitive and effective. And the NASA programme went ahead. As a final note regarding language use, Bernard also introduces a mythbuster that does away existing fixations on the ‘right’ average sentence length; topped off by Veronika’s remark on the dangers of verbosity. For more information on readability and sentence length, see


Smeuninx, Nils. 2018. Dear Stakeholder. Exploring the language of sustainability reporting:a closer look at readability, sentiment and perception. PhD Ghent University.


The sentences below shows how reduced length need not always lead to improved comprehensibility as the telegram style affects rhythm and cohesion. Less is not always more and more is not always less. 

Conducting our business in an ethical, transparent and responsible manner, will help us retain our social licence to operate. This requires a particular focus on managing and controlling risk and consequential impacts through understanding risk drivers and how these relate to our business processes


Our business must be ethical, transparent and responsible. Only then can we keep our social licence to operate. We must manage and control risks and impacts. Understanding risks helps us control them. 


The importance of message clarity provides a nice transition to the interview with our second guest, Dr Paul Lawrence, who is the co-director of the Centre for Coaching in Organisations, or (CCO). On the CCO website, they generously share journal articles and white papers. A really great resource if you're interested in coaching [or] change management, both in practice and teaching. In the interview he explains the notion of dialogue (as opposed to conversation) as it is introduced and used in the Tao of Language, a book he co-authored with six other experts in the field and the single authored book Leading change, based on interviews with 50 leaders around the world. The notion of dialogue very much stresses the importance of listening (he distinguishes between four types) and an agenda-free approach to change communication, rather than a top-down, one way delivery of the message. 


Lawrence, Paul. 2014. Leading Change: How Successful Leaders Approach Change Management. Kogan. 

Lawrence, Sarah Hill, Andreas Priestland, Cecilia Forrestal, Floris Rommerts, Isla Hyslop, Monica Manning. 2019. The Tao of Dialogue. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.  

Lawrence, P. & Moore, A. (2019). Coaching in Three Dimensions: Meeting the Challenges of a Complex World. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

In the final part of the episode we have a closer look at the use of metaphors in change management language and illustrate their cognitive, affective and narrative function by focussing on one particular metaphor that is often used in change management, i.e. the journey metaphor. We first illustrate the abundant use of nautical expressions in some of languages we speak and then move to examples from political speeches that feature the journey metaphors to depict the Covid-19 pandemic (and there is an example that goes back to Erika’s hobbyhorse: space exploration☺), rounding off with examples of narrative metaphors in newspaper articles portraying the arrival of Spanish companies in the UK as a (successful) invasion of the  Spanish Armada. The latter examples are based on research by: 


Vandenberghe, J. (2017) The evaluative potential of colonial metaphor scenarios in (written) media representations of Spain’s economic expansion. Spanish investors as forceful aggressors or audacious pioneers? In: R. Breeze & I. Olza (Eds.), Evaluation in media discourse: European perspectives. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.


Vandenberghe, J., Goethals, P., & Jacobs, G. (2014). 'Economic conquistadors conquer new worlds': Metaphor scenarios in English-language newspaper headlines on Spanish Foreign Direct Investment. In A. Musolff, F. MacArthur & G. Pagani (Eds.), Metaphor and Intercultural Communication (pp. 167-183). London: Bloomsbury.