To Build A High Performing Team, You Need Effective Internal Language

What are some fundamental building blocks needed to build a high performing team? Over my years of working with teams, the pursuit is most often high performance and effectiveness. To achieve this, there are the necessary and well-known pillars of strategy, leadership, and culture. However, another group of fundamental building blocks lie below the surface, often ignored. These building blocks are so powerful, yet so simple…

  • Values that translate in behaviours 
  • Identified learnable skills that relate to a team living their values and stepping up to objectives
  • A toolbox of resources that people know, can call on, and use 
  • Practical systems that make aspirations possible 
  • A supportive environment that primes behaviour and mindset towards aspirations. 
  • Language that aligns, motivates, and focuses people

Developing any one of these with intention and consistency can transform your organisation. And being bankrupt in any of these, will add frustration and risk to the team dynamic, no matter how good the strategy is. It would take a long time to dive into each of these often-overlooked aspects to build a high performing team. So, in this blog our goal is to focus, just for a moment, on the last point: internal language that aligns, motivates, and focuses.

Unclear language creates no progress

Imagine I go to the doctor, feeling unwell, seeking help. She examines me and then declares, ‘Mike you are sick.’ I would look at her, expecting more words to follow. But imagine she then ushers me out her office. The word ‘sick’ doesn’t help. I need clear language for the sickness so that the I can understand, and so that I can respond. The moment she diagnoses my unhappy situation to a term that is understood by both, we begin to move forward. For example, ‘Mike you have bronchitis.’ Ok, that helps. She might need to fill in some gaps, but I do have a basic appreciation for that condition. Now we can talk. Now we can move forward. 

In your organisation, are there words, phrases, mantras, and spoken ways of engagement, that everybody gets? 

‘That and many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realise that language, even more than colour, defines who you are to people.’ 

Trevor Noah made the above statement in his book, Born a Crime. It’s loaded with emotion, hurt and controversy. And this blog is not meant to go there. But even at surface level, this statement demonstrates how language can either build or breakdown connection. Language that connects and creates understanding has the ability to transcend differences and challenges. The lack of common language can often take us in a downward spiral towards an empty pit. Whenever you have a collective group of people, focus on creating unified understanding expressed through the spoken word. 

To Build A High Performing Team, You Need Effective Internal Language

To build a high performing team, sometimes all you need is deeper understanding

As an avid reader and student of life, I cherish moments when I discover new language that illuminates something that was previously in the fog. Moments like when someone says something and you think, ‘oh, so that’s what it’s called,’ or, ‘that’s what’s happening here.’ 

What the other person has done for you is given you language that produces insight and coherence. For example, South African born author and brilliant TED talker Susan David, once shared a concept called ‘social contagion.’ This term is also in her brilliant book Emotional Agility. She describes how this is a condition we are all tempted towards. 

Social contagion describes how we are easily influenced by the actions of other people. When one person does something, permission is given to others to follow suit, regardless of whether the action is helpful or unhelpful. So, the person who starts to text in a meeting, invariably gives others permission to text as well. And soon we have a disrupted, unproductive meeting where anything goes. 

Understanding this term enables an understanding around what is happening. A group who understands this term can create awareness around it, and identify it when it happens. The team that knows this concept and can label it, can act against it. All they needed to enable action was language.  

A few examples of clear internal language

Lumina Spark is a powerful personality profiling tool that enables self-awareness, peer awareness, and helps to build a high performing team. The tool is powerful and provides incredible insight. The insight in turn allows people to focus and choose informed responses to differing stimuli and context. 

It’s also powerful because it provides you with language that can be easily interpreted and understood. The tool makes use of colours, describes different contexts, and uses language like ‘dial up’ or ‘over extension.’ Those who have had the privilege of experiencing Lumina Spark would immediately understand what another person is saying, when they use these terminologies or say things like, ‘let’s dial up a bit of green here.’ It needs no explanation, probably little debate. Its common language supportive of effectiveness.

To Build A High Performing Team, You Need Effective Internal Language

Creating language for attitudes and behaviours builds a high performing team

I make use of a model that I adapted from Seth Godin. It shares 4 roles that people play within a team, and within life. The model is simple, and the roles have been given a very distinct name. 

For example, in this model we find a role nicknamed the Zealot. The Zealot has passion and attachment. What does a passionate yet attached person look like? Have you ever been in a meeting where a person is passionate about an idea, usually their idea, but only for that idea? That’s a Zealot in action. I can guarantee you we’ve all observed a Zealot and that you, too, have played that role. We just did not have a name for it. 

The moment we have language for this attitude and behaviour, we can name it in action.  And if it’s well understood, we can do something about it. Imagine the person who, with good intentions, says to another, ‘I love your passion, buts it’s coming across a bit like the Zealot.’ The other person understands exactly what is being said, and hopefully can choose an informed response. 

This beautiful model connects us with other roles like the Whiner, the Bureaucrat, and most importantly, the Pathfinder (Godin calls this person the Lynchpin). I have done series of workshops with teams where these roles allow us to explore difficult and emotional topics around feedback, accountability, crucial conversations and values. 

Do you know what Alexithymia is?

Alexithymia is an inability to label and express emotions. In other words, to have a limited language for your emotions. This condition is very disempowering. Failure to label emotions renders us more helpless within the emotion. To have healthy engagement with your emotions requires language. 

Here’s an interesting exercise to do. When you are talking with someone and they are displaying emotion, label the emotion for them. So, for example, I might say to John, ‘John I can see this is making you feel angry.’ Now watch what happens next. Assuming John does not battle with alexithymia, he might say, ‘yes it is,’ or he might correct you and say, ‘no I’m not angry, I’m just frustrated.’  This distinguishing is important. It helps John understand his feelings and also helps me more correctly understand John. 

The label supports us. Edith Eager in her amazing book The Choice, encourages people to start with a small feeling vocabulary, if need be, and from there try and increase the spectrum. By small, she means, describing it as ‘am I feeling glad, sad, mad, or scared,’ etc. Imagine the team that stops during a meeting to simply clarify the prevailing feeling in the room. By naming it with language they empower response.  

To Build A High Performing Team, You Need Effective Internal Language

What does the 5 love languages have to do with building a high performing team?

Lastly, let’s go to a best-selling book by psychologist Gary Chapmen – The 5 Love Languages.  I am amazed at how many people know this book. What Chapman does is in this book is so powerful: he gives love, language. Is that allowed? Well, it’s certainly helpful. The book empowers people to understand their partners within the domain of love. 

Use your choice of words to empower, uplift, connect, and progress

Like the doctor who would be unhelpful in just using the word ‘sick’, Chapman highlights that ‘love’, which is probably the greatest virtue of all, is sometimes unhelpful if it’s not supported with the right love language. When somebody understands that their partners love language is centred around receiving validation, they are empowered to love their partner in the way they receive it best . The use of language enables deeper connection.

And so, I could go on and on. We could talk about things like values or meetings, all which are enhanced when there is a vibrant language in use and in development. 

Here’s the big question. Does your team have language that enables meaning and effectiveness? Does it create unhealthy structures, or does it build high performing teams? When was the last time you did a team ‘language workshop?’ Perhaps you should. 

To continue learning and be a student of life, you require an ever-increasing repertoire of language. When you are the student, you recognise that not only must you grow in understanding, but that your understanding is supported and sustained through language. 

We Wear the Same T-shirt: Why You Need to Cultivate Trust in Your Team

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