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CEO Digital Minds in coversation with Dr. Simone Burel Sprachwissentschaftlerin und Shareholder of LUB Photo: Peter J├╝lich / Agentur Focus

Looking below the surface: my conversation with Dr. Simone Burel

Dr. Simone Burel analyzes the language of companies, organizations, institutions and their protagonists. Her company LUB has a team of ten permanent employees who analyze language based on data, advise organizations, train them and support them in text production. How I could sum up my conversation with her? If she had analyzed Wirecard's annual reports, a set of highly interesting risk indicators would have emerged, I'm convinced. I have always appreciated language - and yet underestimated it. What I didn't realize was that language is strategy or unintentionally reveals it.

1. The texts in annual reports often reveal more than the numbers

'Everyone looks at the figures in the annual report, but the text reveals much more,' Simone Burel tells me right at the beginning of our conversation. Eighty percent of the information is in the text. With her team of ten, Simone Burel examines, among other things, so-called 'fillers' and code words that are used at key points, as well as the inventory of so-called 'high-value words' that are used frequently and in similar patterns. 'Linguistics is the most scientific of all the humanities,' she explains to me. Linguistic diagnostics are now used by auditors on the basis of AI and used in medicine to identify indicators of depression and Alzheimer's disease.

2. Companies resemble each other to the point of semantic emptiness

Much of business communication misses the mark. 'It fails to pick people up through unique vocabulary.' For example, when it says 'We make,' Simone Burel knows the word 'future' follows. Here, an observation many are familiar with becomes clearer: Semantically empty formulas are virtually 'trending' in annual reports because companies are aligning themselves linguistically.

Currently, this can be observed excellently in politics, I think: The language of Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock is so strikingly different from that of their coalition partners that every other major media, from SPIEGEL and up to WELT, has dedicated prominent articles to it. Her way of speaking is in stark contrast to the Chancellor. I wonder how parties, but also companies, can invest so much in their brand and marketing, as they do, only to water it down linguistically. Simone Burel and her team use a Language Fit Analysis to investigate whether the brand essence of an organization is reflected in its language material.

3. Recruiting is characterized by many unconscious linguistic signals

Gender codes shape recruiting. Communal words denote words that have feminine connotations; agentic words denote words that have masculine connotations. The former come from a communal perspective. Team, trust, and cooperation appeal more strongly to women. Agentic words convey the perspective of the (active, strong) individual. They still dominate job ads for leadership positions. Assertiveness, determination and autonomy tend to call up male stereotypes - even among women.

Inclusive job ads contain a mix of words with both masculine and feminine connotations. 'It's not even possible, if I have a leadership position, to use only communal terms,' says Simone Burel. Even nouns like leadership, management and change still have masculine connotations in our society, she adds. 'The ideal is to have a mix of words with both masculine and feminine connotations, with the goal of resolving the disparity.'

We have to work with reality, i.e. with social stereotypes. Leadership is unfortunately not yet a word with a feminine connotation today. Simone Burel is pragmatic: 'We have to work with what we find.' In her eyes, we may even return to the generic masculine in fifty years' time, when it has become a generic 'humanum', i.e. no longer automatically associated in the mind with male stereotypes.

Many younger talents refuse to work in a company that does not have gender and diversity on its radar. The portrait of the classic alpha male in the job ad can thus scare off young talent. This is a development that will slowly become mainstream.

Job interviews are also full of linguistic signals. Simone Burel gives the example of different inner images that we can evoke in job interviews with candidates. Whether I see a candidate only as a 'candidate' or as a potential part of the team makes a difference: 'I can talk about the company in such a way that I take the person inside the building, or in such a way that I put him or her in front of the building, so to speak, and make it clear what a great company it is.' The latter sends much more egocentric, hierarchical signals than an inclusive perspective.

4. Leadership should not be hierarchical and can dispense with war metaphors for tactical reasons

Many managers still link their assertiveness to hierarchical language and metaphors of war and battle. Simone Burel confirms my suspicions in this regard. While HR and the communications department talk about perspectives, values, and shared successes, executives often keep their employees at a distance and talk about struggle, assertiveness, and war decisiveness. What Simone Burel then often hears: 'But I need the vocabulary in my leadership area in order to assert myself'. This is also a cultural problem, she says. But sometimes managers underestimate the irrigation potential of alternative linguistic images. Terms from the plant sector (blossom, flourish, penetrate) are an example of this. In this way, managers would have the possibility to irrigate the system around them in a controlled way, e.g. in order to bring about change.

5. Inclusive language is not about politics or paternalism, but about social change and a modern view of humanity

Organizations cannot not behave to inclusion. Organizations must relate to social change, whether they map inclusion or not. This is less a political decision than an ethical one for Simone Burel. She knows the arguments against language change in organizations. At the latest when it goes from the working group to various departments and the board, objections come in like, 'Nobody understands that anymore.' With her team, she also trains project managers to counter this. Inclusive language is a change of language, just like the first name in a company. It takes time and practice. My learning is: Inclusive language is far too often perceived as a political decision, not as a natural task for change. If, according to one study, the majority of German decision-makers think that concrete measures to promote diversity in the workplace could divide the workforce, then they misunderstand language change.

There is no gold standard for inclusive language. The German Spelling Council recommends gendering, but not a form or how to use it. Companies thus determine the form and degree of language change themselves. Simone Burel argues for pragmatism, saying it is important to ask 'Who brings what sensitivity, and where do I start?' There are also companies that exclude certain words from gendering because it is important to them, she says. Her own role, she said, is a descriptive one; she sees herself as a scientist, not a language police. The point of her analysis, she says, is to show what a company is saying, what it is accomplishing, and what risks may be involved.

My conclusion:

I'm taking away two pieces of good news for organizations right now:

Organizations do not have to submit to a canon that is installed. They can look at how they map social change linguistically, individually and step by step. The important thing is to understand and be aware of the impact of language.

Language is a powerful strategic tool that we are not yet using. 'Language is a divestment of thought' is the guiding principle of Simone Burel's work. The phrase made me think of the formulation of a former colleague in a German corporation who, in a conference, justified the upcoming layoffs with the following figure of speech: 'We have to throw off ballast now.' Even then, this caused displeasure among some colleagues. They thought the form was wrong. What was not discussed, but at the same time revealed, was the obvious lack of a talent strategy: Those who speak of people as 'ballast' usually achieve little in personnel development, even in good times. After talking to Simone Burel, I have an inkling of what language can do for business transformation.

About the author

Dr. Sebastian Tschentscher finds the best digital minds for your company with his executive search boutique "Digital Minds".

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