C is for Creating A Common Language

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Winston Churchill said that first we shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.

When I began working with people, I was told:

“First we shape our language, then our language shapes us.”

This is particularly true when working in teams. Let’s explore how you can enable people to develop a language that helps them to achieve success.

You can clarify the value of
having a common language

Great teams find that having a common language does three things.

It provides a common compass.

It provides a framework that enables understanding.

It provides a way of co-ordinating people’s energy towards achieving success.

Let’s explore these themes.

Language can provide a common compass for keeping on track.

Great teams have a mantra they can use for refocusing, especially when times get tough.

Simon Walker, a successful skipper in the BT Global Challenge round-the-world yacht race, involved his crew in creating such a mantra.

The crew eventually agreed on three key principles. These were:

Safe, Happy, Fast.

People focused on these words to ensure they travelled safely, maintained a happy ship and kept finding ways to go faster.

Different teams have different mantras. It can be useful to create one that expresses the principles they want to follow on the route towards achieving success.


Language can provide a common framework for understanding.

Great teams ensure that everybody understands the common language. People understand what the language actually means.

If you are preparing a Formula 1 car for a race, for example, doing a perfect job means producing 10/10.

It does not mean producing 9.9/10. Such teams insist on people getting into the habit of delivering perfection.

Why? Because people’s lives depend on it. Every team will have its own language. So it is vital for people to know what the words mean in practice.

Language can provide a common way of co-ordinating people’s energy towards shaping a positive future.

Great teams are made up of people who are positive, professional and peak performers.

“That sounds great,” somebody may say, “but not everybody is that way.”

Perhaps not, but it is possible to encourage people to choose the attitude they take towards events.

This is linked to the idea of scripting. People internalise scripts which provide an ongoing dialogue in their heads.

Some scripts stem from our nature; some from our nurture. The latter is influenced by the positive and negative models we meet during our lives.

Somebody with a positive script will meet a setback by saying: “How can I solve it.”

Somebody with a negative script may say: “Why do these things always happen to me?”

Great teams develop a language that encourages people to shape a positive future.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” somebody may say. “It sounds rather cultish.”

Certainly that can be true. But the key is to ensure the language encourages people to take responsibility and think for themselves. Great teams are built on similarity of spirit and diversity of strengths.

They hire people who are characters, not clones. People need to embody the values. But they must also use their knowledge, talents and intelligence to translate these into visible results.

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You can create a
common language

Imagine you are leading a team. Let’s assume you have done lots of work on creating the team’s picture of success. It can then be useful to do three things.

To choose a common language.

To make sure everybody understands the language, particularly how it is translated into action.

To keep reinforcing the language.

Let’s explore these aspects.

You can choose a common language.

Bearing in mind the picture of success, what kind of language do you want people to use each day?

The words you choose will embody a particular philosophy, key principles and how these can be translated into practice.

Looking back at my own life, for example, I have worked in many places where the language emphasised the theme of taking responsibility.

When running a therapeutic community for troubled youngsters, the teenagers were invited to focus on:

“How are you choosing to feel today? How do you want to shape your future?

“How do you want to use your talents? How do you want to encourage other people? How do you want to build a better world?”

Great organisations choose a language that expresses the key principles they want people to follow towards achieving success.

During its golden years up until the 1980s, for instance, people in IBM talked about the company’s Basic Beliefs. These included:

Respect for the individual. Service to the customer. Excellence in everything we do.

IBM followed these principles successfully for many years, but then hit a wall.

The Basic Beliefs still held true. But the company faced challenges as it tried to translate these into practice. This brings us to the next step.

You can make sure people understand the common language and how to translate it into action.

Great organisations are serious about moving from awareness to action to achievement. They choose to live the values, rather than just laminate the values.

The leadership team at Air Miles in the early 90s, for example, ensured every employee knew how to translate the values into action. The company’s values were:

Deliver results. Take responsibility. Care for people. Love change.

Sounds fine, but words are blank cheques, they mean different things to different people. Bearing this in mind, Air Miles used an exercise called The Values Challenge.

This involved teams being invited to do the following things:

To focus on a present or future scenario that might challenge the values.

To clarify how they could – as far as possible – live the values in that situation.

To role-play living the values in the tough situation.

This ensured that people built up a common understanding of what, for example, taking responsibility looked like in action.

You can keep reinforcing the common language.

“The best way to learn is to teach,” we are told.

This was an approach that I encountered when visiting therapeutic communities for drug addicts, alcoholics and others recovering from addictions.

Every visit began with me being shown around the community by one of the recovering residents. They explained the philosophy and principles that underpinned the treatment programme.

By teaching about the community, the resident kept internalising the principles. Certainly this approach could be misused but, used properly, it was a good way to reinforce the common language.

John Wooden, the legendary American College basketball coach, kept reminding his players of key principles during their time under his tutorledge.

Creator of the famous Pyramid of Success, he believed in athletes following certain guidelines. These applied to both daily living and the basketball court. His maxims included:

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John Wooden never mentioned winning, but his teams won more titles than any other in College basketball history. He kept reminding his players that:

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Every day he reminded people to do the right things in the right way. This led to getting the right results. You can discover more about his work at:


You can use the common language
to help people achieve success

Peak performers keep returning to their inner compass, especially when times get tough.

Faced by a putt to win the Ryder Cup, the great golfer learns to relax, re-centre and refocus. They control the controllables and play the shot, rather than the occasion.

Great teams do the same. They encourage people to return to the common compass and translate the principles into practice. This is especially vital when facing challenges.

Simon Walker took this approach when first meeting his volunteer crew for the BT Global Challenge. He writes:

“Different skippers have different approaches. Some immediately go out onto the water; others spend time charting the course ahead.

“Immediately after my crew was selected, I arranged for us to get together in a large unheated house in rural Wales.

“This was 8 months before the starting gun fired and long before we ever got to sail the yacht. We began by spending two days talking about the race.

“You can’t build a team before you’ve agreed on the goal. As the leader, I explained my vision of how our race was to be run, but I also needed people’s ownership.

“So we discussed every element of the campaign in detail. Our often repeated values as a crew were simple: Safe, Happy and Fast.


“Professionalism was crucial – because we were literally dealing with matters of life and death.

“From the outset I insisted on high standards in everything we did and the crew responded superbly.

“Time keeping was impeccable. This is important. If you can’t trust your team mate to turn up on time, can you trust him or her with your life?”

Simon’s crew kept returning to Safe, Happy, Fast. Formed during two days in North Wales, these values came to the fore during storms in the South Atlantic Sea.

The guidelines enabled people to overcome crises and achieve their potential as a team. You can discover more about Simon’s past and present work at:


Great teams follow certain principles. One of the key elements is to create an agreed language. People can then share a common compass and channel their energies towards achieving ongoing success.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to, if appropriate, introduce a common language into your team.

Describe the specific benefits of introducing a common language into your team.

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