The Power of Language

“We like to think we are in control. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option.”


In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin built an incredibly useful equation. Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment. B = f (P,E).

From retailers to health experts, study after study confirms environment is a far more significant influencer of human behavior than willpower. In grocery stores, items at eye level sell more frequently than items further down on the shelf. For those fighting addiction, removing themselves from the environment that triggered unwanted cravings gave them a much higher chance of success. Trying to develop a running habit? It’s proven that if the first thing you see in the morning is your running shoes, you are significantly more likely to choose to go on that run.

The environment around us plays a much greater role in the behavior we exhibit or perform than we might think. The more familiar, predictable, and apparent something is, the more likely we are to choose it.

If environment plays a significant role in our behavior, equally interesting is the role language plays in shaping our perception of the world around us. In Namibia and Angola, the Himba tribe has lived isolated from modern societies maintaining their traditional lifestyle. Subject to no external influences, this has allowed the community to preserve their linguistic ability within only the use of their native language.

Without the influence of other cultures, Jules Davidoff and a group of researchers set out to understand how the language they spoke played a role in how they viewed the world. Quite literally, as it relates to color, the group made a remarkable discovery. They conducted tests in which members of the Himba tribe were asked through translators to differentiate the difference of color in a series of different colored tiles.

They found that because of how their colors are categorized linguistically, this influenced the Himba’s actual perception of color. Within their language, there is no specific identifier for the color blue. The closest word to qualify or describe the color blue is also used to describe a collection of greens. When presented with 11 green tiles and one blue tile, the Himba had difficulty distinguishing the difference. With no precise word for the color blue, they had a harder time seeing the difference. To the western eye, the blue tile immediately stands out.

On the other end of the spectrum, while the Himba do not have a specific word for the color blue, they have 19 different descriptors for the color green. While it was difficult for them to pick out the blue tile in the image above, when given a similar tile wheel (test 2 above), they could easily pick out the slightly darker shade of green many Westerners cannot see.

This discovery begs the question:

Can you see something if you don’t have a word for it?

And if you do have a word for something, or multiple for that matter, can you now see it better? Just as environment shapes our behavior, language shapes how we experience the world.

This is why people like Simon Sinek, Brene Brown, and Jim Collins have continuously produced best sellers in the business category. With books like Start with Why, Dare to Lead, and Good to Great, each book has given us new language to help us see the world differently.

Previously, we may have seen undesirable behavior but didn’t have an exact way to put our finger on it. With better language and more clear descriptors, we see things better and align our behavior in the direction we want to go.

When a group shares a common language, they can more easily call out the behavior that helps or hurts the team. The more obvious it is how we should or shouldn’t behave the more likely we are to model the right behavior.

In an increasingly virtual world where we have lost the ability to influence behavior with our physical environment, language plays a critical role. Answer the Compass questions below to determine if you currently speak the language to make your team highly successful.

Compass Questions

  1. Write down the most commonly used words in your work environment. What kinds of behaviors do these words prompt?
  2. What behaviors do you most need in your environment? Is it trust, communication, or teamwork? Do you currently speak a common language that makes these behaviors obvious?
  3. What behaviors would you like to eliminate in your environment? Do you have shared language within your group that makes it easy for teammates to remind each other when heading in the wrong direction?
  4. What language could you add into your environment to better enable the behavior you want to see within your team?

Photo by Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash