Sarah Beart
23 October, 2018

Calling all excretors; why words matter so much in change

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”

Did you grow up with this saying as a supposed consolation when someone said something unkind at school? Words may not actually be able to break bones, but they do have effects on our physiology, and how we interact with the world. At IBM, in my first job, there were two phrases in the unofficial employee handbook of jargon “Cold Pricklies” and  “Warm Fuzzies” , describing two common and very different experiences at work.

“Cold Pricklies; a nagging suspicion that somewhere you have overlooked something critical, and will be punished for it

“Warm fuzzies the kind of feeling it is alleged you get when you think you are proceeding in the right direction, or when you are being treated well by your manager. This state of mind is usually of short duration and is succeeded by “Cold Pricklies.” “

Source; IBM jargon dictionary seventh edition April 1985

(10th edition available online at

Words have serious effects on us and change how we feel about ourselves in the world: a little praise from your colleagues can really generate feelings of warmth (or a cold chill)

What about words in change? Try a little thought experiment. We all know what a consumer is; indeed I am one and so are you. It’s a taken for granted term in daily life with constant references to consumer rights, consumer surveys etc. Let’s stop and think for a moment about this term, and pursue this metaphor a bit further. One thing we know about consumption  it is that it leads to excretion. This is the other end (sorry) of the process.

So now try replacing all the common phrases with consumer in them with “excretor”. Do you want to be part of an excretor rights group or buy excretor magazines? How would you calculate an excretor price index? How do you feel about the people coming into your retail environment if you call them excretors? What would an excretor watchdog actually do? Or an excretor pressure group?

If you are feeling a bit queasy now, then I would say you are experiencing the physiological consequences of words. Usually these effects are a bit more subtle, and you may not even notice that it is your whole self that reacts, and not just your thoughts. For example, what happens when you hear the words “transformational change”? Or “restructuring”?  Mild fear? Excitement? Heart sinking a little? You are probably not alone in having some kind of reaction.

The choice of words and metaphor needs some care when it comes to change. Author Gervase Bushe in his work on dialogic organisation development  suggests that leaders need to create a generative image to make change possible. A generative image, says Bushe,

“is a combination of words, pictures or other symbolic media that provide new ways of thinking about social and organizational reality. In effect, it allows people to consider alternate courses of action or decisions that they could not have imagined before it surfaced.”

A key part of making change work then, is to find a novel and specific way of talking about the organisational change that people can sense and feel, as well as think and talk about. This needs to be something beyond the “one size fits all” terminology of the change recipe book. It might need to provoke something, or join some ideas together (Bushe talks about ideas like “sustainable growth”), or call attention to a different aspect of the situation.

For me, putting the ideas about consumption and excretion close together did change something.  While not perhaps a “nice” image it does make me think differently about myself each time I am being a consumer/excretor. I find myself hesitating about taking up the role of the former, contemplating the inevitable consequences of that consumption. What might happen if we kept these two ideas really close together in everyday life? I’d be interested to know.

What novel language and phrases might you need for the change you are leading?

With thanks to John Higgins, and to Professor Duncan MacFarlane at University of Cambridge, both of whom listened generously to my ranting about consumption/excretion and generated enough warm fuzzies to get me blogging…




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