Language and communication are significant aspects of organizational culture. Depending on our field, we all develop a unique way of describing things. We have our everyday sayings that make people outside of our interest area need clarification about what we are talking about. Most of my leadership experience comes from serving faith communities and faith-based nonprofits. We talk about calling to describe our passion and commitment to our work. We talk about prayer and healing as ways to let people know we were thinking about them, for better or worse. I give people’s intentions the benefit of the doubt, but I have enough experience to know some phrases do more harm than good. For every genuine conversation, plenty were meant to manipulate or influence. If you hear the words “bless your heart,” watch out!  

The Impact of Language on Organizational Culture 

I have learned that as much as context-embedded language is necessary and beneficial for groups to operate efficiently, that same language gives us a buffer to say harmful or hurtful things. This creates a problem for organizational culture because it is harder to identify and eliminate the more insidious iterations of this.  

One of these phrases I have always struggled with is “working tirelessly.” This phrase sounds harmless and is typically used to lift the work of someone who has gone above and beyond in their efforts but consider the context in which it is frequently used. It’s not in a closed-door meeting. It’s not in a one-on-one interview with a supervisor. It’s usually at larger gatherings to use a person “working tirelessly” as the example we should all aspire to.  

Beyond Passion: Preventing Exploitation 

While my expertise is primarily faith-based organizations, many in the nonprofit world can relate to “working tirelessly”. To an extent, it makes sense. People who commit their life’s work to a cause are more likely to be willing to work longer hours, take on more responsibilities, or accept less compensation because of their passion and desire to make social change. This is something that is to be admired about nonprofit professionals, but if we aren’t careful, that same passion is prone to exploitation.  

If the standard set by superiors is working tirelessly, we can quickly burn out trying to meet an unsustainable standard. Nonprofit leaders must set the tone in communicating standards intended to increase the positive impact of organizational culture and create a pace of change and effort that is sustainable.  

Often, when discussing burnout, we focus on self-care practices for an individual to maintain a healthy work-life balance and establish boundaries. These practices are essential, and I am thrilled to see more leaders and organizations discussing the importance of mental health in the workplace. However, as nonprofit leaders, it is also essential to identify and mitigate negative behavior communicated through workplace culture and practice. No amount of time management, meditation, or exercise will make up for a toxic work environment. Unsurprisingly, a harmful or hostile work environment is the most frequent reason employees voluntarily leave their jobs to seek employment elsewhere.  

The most important takeaway is how important communication is for organizational health and sustainability. As leaders, we need to be careful about the messages we communicate to employees, volunteers, and other stakeholders with the phrases or sayings commonly used. Communication can be a vague, sometimes nebulous, term. There are a lot of factors relating to how we communicate, what we say, and how we adapt our communication to changes in culture or audience.  

With that being said, I want to highlight some practical concepts relating to communication that are essential for creating a healthy environment for people to sustainably engage in meaningful work. 

Deciphering Role Expectations 

Role conflict and role ambiguity are two terms that frequently appear when researching organizational factors associated with burnout or job satisfaction.  

  • Role Conflict refers to circumstances where a person experiences emotional distress because competing demands are being asked of them that are inconsistent or incompatible.  

Conflict can also be caused when a person fills two roles with incompatible tasks. If you have ever experienced the stress of having a work deadline or meeting scheduled at the same time as your child’s dance recital, you know all about role conflict! When the responsibilities of our jobs pull us away from our roles as parents, spouses, friends, and community members, we can experience a whole host of mental health concerns like anxiety, burnout, depression, or anything else that is affected by the strain of work-life balance. 

  • Role Ambiguity is similar to role conflict but focuses on situations when a person is unsure or unclear about what is asked of them. 

For example, suppose a person’s understanding of their job responsibilities is different than the understanding of the leaders in the organization. In that case, it can cause role conflict because the person may prioritize their time differently than what they need to complete their supervisor’s expectations. This can lead to poor performance reports and decreased job satisfaction.  

When we are unsure about what is being asked of us, our organizations cannot function as effectively or efficiently as we need them to because time, energy, and resources are not appropriately allocated. This is why clearly defined roles are so important. Having accurate and comprehensive job descriptions, regular check-in meetings, articulated expectations regarding working hours, availability when out of the office, and time off policies are all ways to use communication to ensure roles are defined. Hence, all stakeholders are on the same page. When role definition is clear, we can celebrate a job well done or provide targeted corrective actions effectively and productively. 

Organizational Justice 

Organizational justice is a broad term that covers the extent to which organizations treat people fairly and how fairly people perceive they are treated. This can include anything from equitable pay, promotions, job responsibilities, ethical organizational procedures, opportunities for input and appeal, and how people feel they are treated with dignity and respect. Leaders need to understand both the procedure and the perception of organizational justice because they are distinct. The method ensures that people are treated equitably. Leaders must make sure that the systems and processes in place regarding pay, promotion, rewards, and corrections are based on effort and outcome instead of favoritism, nepotism, or some other standard that does not treat everyone fairly.  

Perception is where communication is essential. An organization can have the most equitable and inclusive policies possible. Still, if they don’t match the experience of the employee or volunteer, something needs to be addressed to determine what is causing the disconnect. Leaders are responsible for ensuring policies are transparent, decisions are well-reasoned, and people feel genuinely included in the decision-making process.  

Organizational culture is healthiest when all perspectives are evaluated. People appreciate working in an environment that values disagreement so long as they can understand why the decision was made, even if they would have chosen differently. When considering organizational justice, it is essential to remember that policies are meant to serve people, not vice versa; when employees feel valued and centered in their work, long-term and sustainable engagement skyrockets. 

Organizational Justice Diagram showcasing the needs of organizational culture.

Authenticity 

Authenticity is essential for many facets of effective, sustainable leadership, especially organizational culture and communication. What authenticity is or is not could be the subject of a whole separate conversation. Still, when Authentic Leadership is used as a theoretical framework, we look for four key traits: balanced processing, relational transparency, internalized moral processing, and self-awareness. 

  • Balanced processing indicates a willingness to objectively analyze all relevant data before making a decision.  
  • Relational transparency is the ability to promote trust through openly sharing one’s true thoughts and feelings. 

Both of these traits relate to organizational justice. Being willing to openly share your perspective while ensuring other team members feel safe and respected to do the same creates an organizational culture of cooperation and participation that goes a long way toward sustainable leadership.  

  • Internalized moral processing is necessary because it communicates a deep sense of self-regulation where decisions are made from internalized morals and values and not based on group, organizational, or societal pressure. This also conveys a sense of fairness and care that promotes a collaborative culture. 
  • Self-awareness is one of the most important characteristics a leader can exemplify. Understanding how one makes meaning of the world, views oneself, and is aware of how one’s words and actions impact others is foundational for authentic and sustainable leadership. 

The things that leaders say and do and the systems they create communicate volumes to employees, volunteers, and stakeholders. They determine whether a person feels valued, that the organization cares about their well-being, and that their work is important. An organization’s sustainability relies on the longevity of its stakeholders. Communication creates culture. Culture creates consistency. By intentionally seeking clarity in roles, organizational justice, and authenticity, leaders can significantly impact workplace mental health, burnout, and job satisfaction. 

About the Author:

Dr. Dan Lebo works as the Director of Leadership and Organizational Management at Eastern Mennonite University. Previous positions include Lead Pastor with Gravel Hill United Methodist Church, Chaplain/Coordinator of Spiritual Life with Lebanon Valley College, and Managing Director with Innabah Camp and Retreat Center. Dan is an active volunteer with Gretna Glen Camp and Retreat Center and the is a board member for Peace Through Action USA 

Dan holds a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Alvernia University and a Master of Divinity from Palmer Theological Seminary. Dan is an Advanced Certified Nonprofit Professional (ACNP) and is an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. 


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