Over the course of what I self-deprecatingly refer to as my “career” I’ve worked in and with a large number of different organisations in a very varied number of industry sectors. The sociologist in me finds learning about new organisations utterly fascinating, and quickly being able to pick up the nuance of a new setting is crucial to be able to make some sort of positive impact.

Whilst people in almost every organisation will think that they are unique, most organisations are very similar*. There are inputs. Stuff happens. There are outputs. Hopefully, the stuff adds value along the way. It’s not always the case.

What does differ dramatically from organisation to organisation and sector to sector (and not necessarily consistently within organisations in the same sector) is the language that is used to describe the inputs, outputs and stuff in the middle.

Do you have customers? Or clients? Or students? Or patients? Or citizens? Or taxpayers?

Do you produce products? Or services?

Do you have staff? Or people? Or employees? Or talent? Or resources?

Hopefully, you get the idea. I’ve found that the quicker one can get up to speed with the nuance of language, the quicker one can become productive in a new setting.

You can also get thrown by terms that you have deeply embedded in your own vernacular that mean something completely different in a new setting. I still get confused between NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and NLP (natural language processing). It took me months of working in housing for the word Development to start to conjure images of bricklayers rather than geeks cutting code.

There is then a special class of language that relates to power within an organisation that is particularly useful to decode. I call them Trump Cards. Words that are used that signal that someone wants something to be of high priority.

For example, when I worked at a marketing agency, a business still privately founder-owned, if “Gary said that…” it meant get it done now. If “The client said that…” it also meant get it done now. And if “Gary said that the client said that…” then it was all too late and you were in trouble.

In publicly-listed companies, the “shareholders” will often be a trump card. Regulators and regulations are used too – the housing regulator, or GDPR, for example.

In government, the Minister or the Director General or Permanent Secretary will be played.

Want to know if a company is as truly customer/client/student/patient/taxpayer centric as it proclaims? Check how often the customer/client/student/patient/taxpayer is used as a trump card.

Trump cards also indicate how power is distributed and used in an organisation. It’s easy to fall into the trap that hierarchy is where the power lies. That can cause confusion and resentment – for example, PAs of senior people can unwittingly throw trump cards around at will, often because most of what they are being asked to do is because their principal has asked for it to happen. But for people who don’t understand inherited power, there can often be resentment that a “lowly” assistant seems to wield so much power around so much of the time.

It’s not a deeply scientific approach, but it’s a tool that I’ve found useful for many years now. Explaining it to people (and it’s a relatively simple concept to understand) can often get people to express concepts of power and prioritisation in their business really quickly.

So what are the trump cards played in your organisation? Do you know? And do you yourself use them appropriately and sparingly?


* the one exception to this rule is higher education. Higher education really is different, and often not in a good way.

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