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The Journal

Company Say, Company Do: How Your Words Define Your Business

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3 minute read

Business is competitive by design. To succeed, as an individual or an organization, requires assertiveness, power, and strength. As a result, much of the language we use while doing business implies a desire to overpower—or even disempower—our competitors.

Battle terminology sneaks in (kill, crush, destroy, capture, acquire); and as in war, it becomes necessary to take the humanity out of those “targets” in order to execute on the plan.

But it’s not impossible to imagine a world where business success goes hand-in-hand with seeing and respecting the humanity of our competitors, or customers, or colleagues. Even at IDEO, where we champion a human-centered approach, the words we use in meetings and briefs can fall into the tried and true trope of conquest.

As a thought exercise, we made a list of the common terms that can dehumanize customers and competitors, and a list of alternatives that might infuse our conversations about individual and organizational performance with more humanity, agency, and reciprocity.

No one needs more business jargon, but we have a hunch that changing the way we speak can change the way we think, and in turn can change the way business feels and what it delivers. We’re trying it out and invite you to do the same.

  • Hailey Brewer

    IDEO Alum, IDEO New York
    Hailey is a co-conspirator to clients who seeks to push the edge of their industry and transform their organization in the process. She specializes in design strategy and organization design. 
  • Lia Wesp

    Production Designer, IDEO San Francisco
    Lia brings a graphic design focus to IDEO San Francisco’s production design team. While embracing imperfections and obsessively hoarding printed matter, she has cultivated a design practice that celebrates the unusual and tactile. In her “spare time” you can find her listening to Dolly Parton and Black Sabbath while pretending to garden.
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