Organisational language can be more inclusive

Organisational language can either include or exclude staff and can be changed to become more inclusive. A colleague and I participated in an inquiry about some conversations that I was analysing. The aim of the inquiry was to appraise my interaction with staff through a transactional analysis (TA[i]) lens. As the conversation unfolded we came to realise that there are packets of language (POL’s) used in the organisation that forced adult-child transaction to take place.

Forcing an adult-child transaction

We transact with each other in any of three ego states. The three ego states are Parent, Adult and Child. In “Parent” you act like your parents wanted you to act or how your parents acted. In the “Child” ego you either behave like an adaptive child based on the relationships and experiences of your childhood by adapting to the situation or you act like a creative child creating new reactions. While in “Adult” we are neither Parent nor Child and are able to moderate our responses by acting autonomously. Certain combinations promote conversational flow while others block the flow of useful conversation. What is notable in certain POL’s is that they only allow for a Parent-Child and Child-Parent transaction. This means that Adult-Adult (the ideal conversation of inclusion) conversations are rare or non-existent.

When a parent speaks to a child Adult-Child language is normal and obviously acceptable. It is when an adult speaks to an adult while the conversation sounds like one between a parent and a child that presents a problem. Examples of the Parent language are phrases that are aimed to tell someone what do, or to reprimand as if talking to someone who does not know better, questions that are structured and uttered in a way that ‘demands’ an immediate explanation and instructions that are phrased, well, in a repressive way.

The use of the identified POL’s makes one sound like an angry or upset parent. Think back and reflect on how your guardians sounded when they were disappointed, angry or irritated. That is the language that I am referring to. This language is especially used by supervisors and managers when interacting with staff lower down on the hierarchy and is deeply imbedded in some organisations. I sometimes caught myself transacting from an adult ego since I too adopted stock phrases of organisations where I spent a lot of time. People who use these POL’s are often not even aware that they are having a miserable effect of staff.

These POL’s can be unlearned by introducing new language based on the Adult ego. This would take time and the effects can be diluted if too few people in supervisory positions start using it. I found it useful to analyse (as part of an inquiry) interactions while they take place and to then pause to discuss what was noticed in a group. I found that these groups were only effective when they included all levels of staff.

The reason why non-supervisory staff are included in the inquiry is because their default ego tends to be the adaptive child. Examples of transacting in this ego present by staff immediately providing an excuse (not an answer) to a question (regardless of whether the question was asked from an Adult intent), or staff tend to become defensive. This causes tempers to flare and communication to break down.

Through these inquiry groups I experimented with different ways of introducing new language into departments. In all cases the change in POL was heavily dependant on management involvement. Therefore, it is imperative that management supports the facilitated inquiries. Using internal staff may be problematic because they have also become accustomed to the POL’s and may have difficulty identifying the unsavoury phrases.

Oppressive and dismissive language

I observed that top level managers threaten staff openly by saying “leave if you do not like it”, “I will investigate you” and “I will remind you that it is easy to get rid of you”, “do not think, just do as I say” etc. This sets the example for supervisors who then adopt the same phrases. The POL’s are then adjusted amongst staff to fit their phraseology and are used against each other. There is a clear chasm that is created between staff (the children) and management (the parents) by this approach. This makes staff feel excluded in the sense that they are not included in organisational development much like children do not run households.

There are obviously exceptions to these examples in the form of very passionate, compassionate and inclusive leaders who guide and support all members of the team. They get a lot of good results from their teams that show that this approach is effective.


There are more examples of how organisational language impacts on staff. The bottom line is however that POL’s are powerful contributors to inclusion and exclusion. Replacing the language that hampers inclusion will take time and starts with you changing your POL’s. I found it useful to ask myself two questions before I interact with staff and after the interaction: 1) Am I in Parent, Adult or Child mode?; and 2) Does / did my message have the potential to exclude someone? I found that the longer I use this exercise the more inclusive my language gets.

What you say has the potential to make someone feel great or terrible. The POL’s used in your organisation will either include or exclude staff. This directly affects productivity.


[i] Text that formed the basis of knowledge around transactional analysis: Berne, E. (1964). Games people play – the psychology of human relationships (Kindle ed.). London: Penguin Group.


By Niel Stander

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