Caroline Moore at #dareconf 2014

Use the language of choice to affirm your autonomy at work

When we use violent language to describe our work, we deny our autonomy. If we use the language of choice, we can affirm our autonomy and inspire others to do the same.

During a discussion about communication on a digital project, I had this exchange:

Person [casually]: “…of course, this is all happening under extreme duress…”
Me [shocked]: “extreme duress? That’
s strong language!”
Person: “Well, we’re working to extremely aggressive timelines.”

Consider the word duress:

“threats, violence, constraints, or other action used to coerce someone into doing something against their will or better judgement” (Oxford English Dictionary)

English doesn’t have a stronger word to describe violence. This person considered it a normal way to describe work on a digital project. What violence were they referring to, and who was inflicting it? Perhaps it was:

  • management forcing the team to work faster than they wanted to
  • colleagues forcing people to work in a way they don’t like

Did this person believe that they had no choice over the work they took on? Were they forced to take and/or keep the job? It’s more likely they hadn’t considered this language as violent.

Even if you don’t go as far as “extreme duress”, you’ve probably said you had to take a job, or that your boss or client made you do something, or that you should behave in a certain way. When we use this type of language, we’re saying that we have no choice over our work. We’re denying our autonomy.

Organisations are violent places. They’re an example of what Marshall Rosenberg calls domination systems, where a few people control everyone else to their own advantage. According to Rosenberg, domination systems require:

  1. suppression of self
  2. moralistic judgments
  3. a bureaucratic language that denies choice, with words like should, have to, ought
  4. the concept of deserve

One reason digital work is challenging is because it requires voluntary cooperation. We can’t force people to work together, so we need to use nonviolent methods. That includes language.

As digital workers, we may not be fully independent. For example, we might need money to pay the bills, and a corporate job might be the only way to get that. But we have some autonomy—often more than our non-digital colleagues, because our skills are in demand. If we use the language of choice, we can exercise that autonomy.

Next time you hear yourself saying you should or have to do something, try reframing it as a choice, eg:

  • “I choose to work long hours on this project because I value collaboration”
  • “I choose to take shortcuts in this sprint because I want to get user feedback and our budget is limited”
  • “I’m taking this job even though it has a long commute because I want to develop my skills”

When we state a choice we reconnect with our power. Which will inspire others to do the same.

(Want more? Come to my people skills workshop in January.)


Photo: Caroline Moore presenting Deconstructing your excuses at #dareconf 2014. Credit: Paul Clarke.