The scene: A quarterly employee Town Hall meeting.
The principal players: The CEO and two senior vice presidents.
The first 12 minutes of the “company update”: A rehash of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals three months prior the meeting, with plenty of inside jokes and by-play between the three male executives.
Scenario two: A visiting executive opens with an elaborate seven-minute “joke” that pokes fun at the local executive’s college, a traditional sports rival.
Scenario three: A Marketing executive includes a detailed description of a perfect round of golf, enjoyed at one of the most prestigious courses in the country, in a presentation on a new ad campaign.
We’ve all been there – the executive is feeling pressured to unite the workforce and establish a “team.” So in an effort to connect with an employee audience, the executive falls back on traditional sports imagery and anecdotes to establish a common language and shared experiences.
But with an increasingly diverse workforce, and more women in the workplace than ever before, sports talk accomplishes the exact opposite outcome, highlighting differences rather than establishing rapport. Instead of creating a sense of belonging these stories put up barriers between the speaker and the audience.
First there’s the economic barrier. Most mid-level workers are struggling to pay mortgages and save for college tuition. Golf is regarded as a rich man’s game and greens fees — let alone travel to exotic golf resorts — are well beyond the average employee’s means.
Then there’s the gender barrier. Granted, I’m a lifelong Redskins fan and a passionate college hoops follower. But I’m an exception to the rule. Most of my female friends, and the majority of women overall, simply don’t follow or care about professional sports. So sports jargon just reinforces the perception of upper management as a “good old boys’ club.”
Finally there’s the language barrier. Employees who count English as their second language don’t understand such terms as “red zone offense,” “rundown” and “full court press.” These employees are alienated by unfamiliar phrases and are often too embarrassed to ask what they mean.
Not convinced? Imagine an executive uttering this sentence at an employee meeting: “Westwood threatened to take the game to Sussex, smashing a Beer full toss for six, only to then fall victim to the leg-spinner when he holed out to Luke Wright at deep midwicket after being dropped by the England one-day man earlier in the over.” Would you know what that means?
I don’t know about you, but if my CEO started talking about a “Beer full toss for six,” I’d think he was talking about Happy Hour instead of a strategic response to a business problem. (By the way, I lifted that description of a cricket play from “Hamilton-Brown secures Sussex win” on BBC.com.)
So here’s my wake-up call to senior executives: It’s time to stop pretending that you are “one of the regular folks” and start using language and imagery to which all employees can relate. Otherwise, you’ll find that your message is getting lost in translation.