the importance of wheelbarrows

In modern language we seem to have over developed the idea of the nominalisation. That is, the turning of actions into things. The nounification of verbs, if you will.

For example, we talk about ‘our relationship’, as if it is a thing. As if we can stand and look at it.  As if we can pick it up, turn it around, look at it from a different perspective. As if we can move it somewhere else. As if one of us has influence over it, owns it, can change it, or is to blame for it.

I see this all too often in organisation speak. “This person is accountable for the customer relationship.” Good luck with that.

In point of fact what we are really referring to is the verb of relating. I relate to you, you relate to me, and if that is balanced, useful and rewarding to both of us it could be said we have a relationship.  However we can only change the relating. How we behave and relate. We have no direct influence over how the other party relates, so how can we be accountable for the relationship?

This language appears everywhere now. Organisations talk about ‘engagement’. ‘Employee engagement’. We survey it, measure it, agonise about it. It isn’t a thing! It’s a nominalisation. What we should be doing is engaging. Engaging with our employees. Engaging each other. Engaging with other human beings.

We talk about ‘change’. ‘Change management’. We should be talking about changing. It’s active. Change and change management are cold terms that absolve us from acting. Corporate speak.

Someone once said to me, if you can’t put it in a wheelbarrow, it isn’t a thing. I’ve never tested the total truth here, but they are wise words, nonetheless.

Show me the wheelbarrow with a relationship in it. Show me the one with engagement in it. Wheel round the change. Pop down the garden and bring me back some competencies. Oh and get me some growth whilst you’re there.

As human beings we need to get back to doing. The good old fashioned verb.

Nominalisations give priority to the action rather than the person doing it. They prioritise products and outcomes over the actor and the process by which they are achieved.

This is unhelpful at best and dangerous in the extreme. It absolves the individual of responsibility.

I can change, provided I am motivated to. It’s my responsibility. A change management programme isn’t going to cut the mustard, it just provides smoke and mirrors to a leadership lack of engaging me, motivating me, inspiring me.

I can alter my behaviour.  Me, not some invisible behaviour management programme, enhanced benefits package or competency based review framework.

As human beings, let’s relate to each other, engage each other. Let’s focus on being responsible for personally growing, personally changing, reflecting and learning about ourselves, developing our skills.

Let’s keep the wheelbarrow. But only for the things we can put in it.

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