Some unsavory developments have happened at the client site where I took up Account Management for the first time in my career in 1996. I have kept in touch with my clients all these years and I got to hear about these developments directly from my clients. I am totally saddened by what happened. Unfortunately due to confidentiality issues, I can’t write more on this.
These conversations put me in nostalgia mode and brought back one of the key learnings that I had from one of my favorite clients – she calls her style “Subtle Leadership”. This post is a tribute to her.
The time I started at this client site, we were all called “contractors”. Now, this isn’t an unusual practice by itself. Even today external consultants are called contractors or vendors or something like that. The practice had evolved to such an extent that the identity cards were color coded and heck even the email address was tagged with a “c” to denote contractor. All contractors were excluded from team outings, many important meetings etc. Contractors were not given name plates to hang outside the cubicle. It wouldn’t be surprising if as a contractor you felt like an outcast.
It is in this milieu, that my favorite client practiced an entirely different approach. She invited all the contractors to all meetings, team meetings, addressed us as partners and treated us almost like any other employee. Guess what, our employees in this group worked harder, were more productive, came up with more creative ideas, jelled with each other as a team better. She invited our suggestions, implemented many of them.
In short, she got the best work out of us “contractors”. She did all this quietly without tooting her own horn – the hallmark of “subtle leadership”. Creating this sense of belonging, camaraderie and using that to drive better performance is one of the biggest lessons I have learnt in my life and I owe this to my client.
Now to the original subject of this post. Think about how one word Contractor vs. Partner makes such a big difference in performance. It is funny why more companies and leaders don’t understand this simple thing. As it is my fancy these days, I looked at the neuroscience of this. In my research I came across the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which postulated that there is a strong connection between language and your ability to think complex thoughts.
It remained a hypothesis and a hotly debated subject amongst scientists untill the discovery of a tribe in South America that speaks the Piraha Language. It turns out that this tribe has no words in their language for numbers greater than two – they simply use one, two and many. When they were adminstered quantitative ability tests as a part of the research they couldn’t handle numbers greater than two effectively.
It has also been shown now that people who can’t speak and hear are able to do better thinking if they have learnt the sign language. Such is the power of a single word – use them wisely. Have you all had any such experiences that demonstrate the power of langauge?
1. Wikpedia entry for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: