THE BLOG
03/27/2014 11:56 am ET | Updated May 27, 2014

Speak Softly If You Mean Business

Seventy years ago, a chemical engineer and part-time anthropology professor named Benjamin Lee Whorf put forth a fascinating and controversial theory: language can impose on its speakers a limited view of reality. He was directing his theory toward Native American languages and their missing description of the progression of time. Whorf theorized that this absence meant that Native Americans would be unable to comprehend the full concept of time itself. Although such a leap was faulty, his work touched off an almost continual study of the link between what we say about the world and what we really think it to be. After decades of study, we've come to appreciate that a language's structure and vocabulary reflect, as well as shape, our view of the world.

Business language reflects a particular view. It's known for being no-nonsense, aggressive and analytical. At times, it borders on the violent: "Crush the competition!" "Slash prices!" "It's a category killer!" If language both reflects and shapes a world-view, business language conveys a deeply masculine tone that leaves little tolerance for anything remotely feminine. In a free market of bare-knuckled competition, there is no room for softness. But is this a true reflection of the realities of the free market or just a one-sided point of view? What would happen if market players started speaking in a more feminine tone?

Imagine the subtle shift in perception if a genuine attempt were made to approach business strategy, and the measurement of results, in terms of enrichment, community, sustenance, tolerance and sensitivity. Imagine an emphasis on creating a larger pie to benefit many as opposed to dividing up ever-dwindling resources.

This is not about gender diversity. Real progress has been made in the advancement of women to senior corporate roles and such diversity is yielding strong performance, as measured by Catalyst. (Although it's clear that more advancement is deeply needed.) This is about pursuing a balance of masculine and feminine language and perception. It is an opportunity to expand the definition of success beyond current boundaries by infusing feminine energy, in equal measure, into the business world.

A more feminine mindset is, in many respects, the most important growth strategy. Why? Because traditional reliance on either natural resources or territorial "ownership" of a market eventually leads to the same result: scarcity, diminishment and low levels of social and environmental stewardship. In fact, researchers Dimo Ringov and Maurizio Zollo conducted a study on the impact of culture on corporate social performance. As published in Corporate Governance in 2007, they found that companies operating in countries with high levels of power distance and masculinity performed worse on corporate social and environmental issues than countries without such prominent characteristics.

The idea of introducing more feminine language and energy to the corporate world might cause some to argue that hard-core, male-oriented competition drives innovation, improvement and human advancement. A particular view of history does point to that. It also points to some pretty serious negatives. In the end, have we really challenged ourselves to explore another approach? Are we saying that feminine energy precludes advancement? I, for one, don't believe that it does.

So, where to begin? Let's start with the language that's applied to the foundation of business performance: objectives. Instead of creating objectives - for a division, a team or individuals - based on traditional, masculine-leaning language, try instead to infuse feminine terms at least 50% of the time. Create objectives that give measureable credit to cooperation, generation, flexibility and allowing others to benefit from time to time. It might feel uncomfortable at first and force the development of non-traditional metrics. Yet the odds are that the impact, if done right, will move past purely quantitative measures to qualitative benefits that improve and expand the business environment.

I am optimistic that we can create a more balanced, holistic and growth-oriented market, one that creates more for the many, not just the lucky few. All we need to do to get started is learn to speak softly.