For several years I worked as a journalist. Words were the tools of our trade. And yet for an industry whose job was communication it’s amazing how poor our internal communication could sometimes be. Staff would find out important details from management second (or third hand) rather than clear communication channels being in place. A common joke amongst my colleagues was “for professional communicators we do a pretty bad job of it internally”!
And then of course there would be the spin; sacked employees spun as growth opportunities, poor ratings reframed positively. In an industry where words were the tools of our trade nevertheless miscommunication, and misinformation abounded.
Add to that the practice by those in leadership of over-promising and under-delivering. I still remember sitting in one team meeting where my boss outlined an exciting new proposal. My immediate thought was “That’s never going to happen”. Such was my cynicism at plans being announced and never coming to fruition that this was my immediate response.
Miscommunication, misinformation, over-promising and under-delivering. and just simply a failure to let your staff know what is happening. You’ve likely experienced some (or all) of this in your daily work. And perhaps you’ve been guilty of perpetuating it.
Communication is essential to getting things done
Words in the workplace can be a constant source of frustration for many employees. In fact poor communication is regularly cited as the number one frustration workers have with their bosses. As one writer puts it, “If you were to name the worst leader you’ve encountered, I’ll make a bet that one of your criticisms involves poor communication”.
On the flip-side we long for a boss who gives clear directions, communicates well, doesn’t over promise, and is true to their word. And if we’re in leadership we might aspire to this.
But why are words in the workplace just so important? Simply because communication is essential to getting things done. While there are many ways that we communicate (body language, with our actions), critical to communication are our words. Just ask any parent how much simpler it becomes to know what your child wants when they start speaking!
Communication is essential to getting things done. That’s why in Genesis 11, at the Tower of Babel, when God wants to frustrate the prideful work of humanity, He doesn’t take away their tools or building materials, He takes away their ability to communicate.
Words are at the heart of communication. We need them to get things done. Which is why when they break down in workplace, especially at the top in leadership, great things can never get done.
Why words break down
But why do words break down? To answer that question we need to dig deeper to uncover the source of our words. And Jesus provides the answers in Matthew 15:18: “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart”.
So what’s going on in our hearts that leads to poor communication? There is perhaps no single heart problem that lies behind all our word problems, but there is certainly one that lies behind many of them. That is the same problem that was judged in the Tower of Babel, namely pride.
Why might pride be at the root of many of our word problems? In part because pride lies behind much, if not all, idolatry and sin. But let’s take an example and test out this theory. Why do I lie to you? Why do I make the numbers sound just a little bigger? Or the problems just a little smaller? Why do I over-promise? Simply because I want you to think well of me, which is pride. So I make my work, I make me, sound a little better than I really am. Lying behind much of our twisting of words is pride.
However pride with our words can work itself in unexpected ways, both in an over-confidence (a leader who is brash and self-assured), but also in an under-confidence (a leader who is indecisive and clear). As New York pastor Timothy Keller explains, both are the outworking of pride: “Both are the result of being overinflated [or proud]. The person with the superiority complex is overinflated and in danger of being deflated; the person with an inferiority complex is deflated already”. Behind both over-confidence and under-confidence lies pride, an insecure pride, because if what you think of me depends on me then your opinion of me is constantly under threat. I can never be sure of my value and worth in your eyes; I might have it today, but not necessarily tomorrow. And so I live in a constant state of insecurity, that might result in over-confidence, projecting that I’ve got it all together so you don’t question otherwise, or under-confidence, being indecisive and unsure.
And how do many try to address this in the workplace? By their words; spinning, lying, over-promising. Painting a picture that is a little rosier, a little more impressive, so that we will think they are impressive.
Using words to hide our insecurity
One day I remember talking with my colleagues when one of them said very decisively, “Andrew nothing seems to phase you”. Before I even had a chance to draw breath another colleague jumped in: “No he’s like a duck, all calm on the surface but underneath his feet are paddling like crazy”. And she was right.
To some degree all of us are tempted in this, to be like ducks. With our words project a confident exterior, but underneath perhaps padding like crazy. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte describes it like this: “I’m terrified that all the mess that I usually keep stuffed behind a friendly, competent, professional, if harried, veneer will come spilling out”.
This can be a temptation even for those of us who are Christian. To maintain the impression of having it all together we’re tempted to twist and spin our words. And the higher we get to the top in the workplace the more of a temptation it can be.
Addressing our word problems – start with status, not speech
If the cause of our workplace word problems is a heart problem then what is the solution? The New Testament addresses our lying and our over-promising not by starting with our speech, but our status, namely the sure and secure identity we have in Christ.
In Colossians 3:1-4 it says this of all believers: “Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory”.
Who are you? If you’re in Christ then “you have been raised with Christ”, your life is “now hidden with Christ in God”, and you look forward to “appearing with Him in glory”. For the person insecure about their place at the top, you’re already at the top – raised with Christ. For the person insecure about their worth before others, you’re so precious to God that you’re “hidden with Christ in Him”. For the person insecure about whether you’re valued by others, before God you have a glorious status because of Christ.
The Apostle Paul says embracing this identity will result in changed hearts, changed minds…and changed speech. After talking about our status, Paul turns to our speech, urging us to get rid of our old selves: “Such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:8-10).
The one who is secure in their status before God (raised with Christ, hidden in Him, looking forward to appearing with Him in glory) will no longer need to twist words to impress others. Rather, because your identity is secure and sure you can speak words of truth and love, even if they don’t paint you in as rosy a light before your employees and your colleagues. You'll mean what you say when you know who you are.