In Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel presents a fascinating dichotomy that reveals powerful truths about organizational communication. On one hand, it showcases the power of unity (v. 6 “…The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!”). On the other hand, it exposes the dangerous consequences of groupthink, when desire for conformity or “sameness” override rationality and critical evaluation of motives. (v. 4 “Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”)
Interestingly enough, the fact that the Hebrews all spoke the same language was not the issue. If anything, God marveled at the potential that it gave them. The real problem was their intent. Their efforts were self-driven and self-serving. Their unity went far beyond just common language and their purpose far beyond just a desire to be a cohesive group. Somewhere along the line they developed an illusion of invulnerability and inherent morality. They became so confident in their abilities that no one ever stopped to ask the question, “Should we even be doing this?” I can only presume that their closed-mindedness and censorship of outside opinion insulated them from good judgment and impaired their ability to change.
Ultimately, God forced change upon them by dividing their languages, causing immediate confusion, fragmentation, and the demise of the mission – all things the Hebrews were determined to avoid. It was the inevitable pride before the fall, I imagine. Not to mention, the residual effects of groupthink (consider the Holocaust or the Watergate Scandal). All in all, the Tower of Babel story serves as an incredible lesson of just how powerful one language is – the fact, that virtually anything is possible when people share the same vernacular – as well as how quickly a project or mission can crumble when language and understanding are confounded.
How many organizational leaders desire that their teams operate at maximum efficiency? I would venture to say all of them. But what many leaders overlook is just how critical unified language is. It can literally mean all the difference between success and failure. Language is a vehicle of understanding among people. Once people understand one another, it unlocks the potential for meaningful dialogue and productive interchanges. Just as I would have difficulty understanding someone speaking Chinese to me, so it is among people within an organization that lacks a common culture and clear, consistent messaging. Common language is essential for the fluid exchange of ideas and the synchronization of teams and departments.
It may seem all too elementary, but, oftentimes, an organization’s dysfunction is rooted in the disconnect of its individuals. When the left hand doesn’t know or understand what the right hand is doing or saying, frustrations develop, processes break down, and things do not get accomplished as they should. But imagine if all the people within your organization were on the same page? If everyone were in sync with the next guy or the next department? If they could all manifest understanding of the corporate objectives and philosophy through their words and actions? If you’re an organizational leader, that would be awesome, right? Just think of the potential! Most leaders I’ve talked to, though, don’t witness this phenomenon in their organizations. In fact, they often complain that their people just don’t get it. I would argue, however, that it has less to do with the people, more to do with them as a leader, and everything to do with the language.
Organizational change almost always happens from the top down, not the other way around. As a leader, you can’t dodge this bullet. If you want successful outcomes, you must work intentionally on developing a language (a common code and culture) that unifies your people in heart and in understanding. Unified language is not something you do casually, nor is it something you merely dictate. It’s something you teach and model throughout your organization methodically at every level, from the front door to the back door. Much like a choir director who trains and works with a collection of individual voices, each uniquely different, yet is able to conjoin them harmoniously in code, purpose, and direction to produce sounds that are heavenly. That is the power of one language.
If you are a leader dealing with a disjointed team or fragmentation within your organization, try to get out of your head for a moment. Take an honest inventory of your motives and objectives. Are you interested in taking the time to invest and empower your people hands-on? Or would you rather dictate initiative from a distance? Also, check your willingness to be wrong. Maybe you feel you’ve already tried everything. Is it possible you just haven’t become aware yet of a better alternative? Below are 7 things that I have learned first-hand to be most effective at unifying the language. I encourage you to consider them and just see what they might do for your organization.
- Spend more time with your people. Seek their input. Keep the communication channels open.
- Hold consistent team meetings. If some cannot be present, ensure that minutes are distributed timely.
- Don’t avoid conflict. Welcome critical thought. Encourage disagreement, especially in the decision-making process.
- Watch for excessive agreement (Too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing. Just look at the Hebrews at the Tower of Babel).
- Never assume silence means consensus. Sometimes people say nothing, because they are afraid of rejection or being stereotyped.
- Unity does not mean sameness. You want harmony and synergy, not robots and cookie cut-outs.
- Evaluate all of your communication mediums (verbal, printed literature, website, etc.) to ensure that the messages are clear, accurate, and consistent throughout the entire organization.
Ultimately, you want cohesiveness, but not at the cost of groupthink, where concurrence-seeking becomes too dominant and transformative thinking is stifled. Through high affinity, you should be able to cultivate an environment where respect and order are still the rule, yet opinions can be given without fear of reprisal. The goal of unifying the language is to induce greater understanding among your team(s), which segues to more effective collaboration and synergy, which segues to greater productivity and successful outcomes. As you can imagine, though, developing a common code and culture in your organization does not happen overnight. It takes commitment and it is a process, but the dividends are far worth the investment. If you are thinking, “I can’t afford to make these kind of changes,” I will assure you, you can’t afford not to.