Is work war?

Benjamin Fraser
Sep 11, 2019 · 6 min read

Working in digital development, it’s common to hear people using phrases like ‘Digital War Rooms’, ‘boots on the ground’ or ‘Issue severity’. Whilst I’m sure these kind of words are common across industries I’ve started to wonder, why do we use war analogies at all and if they are, in fact, doing more harm than good?

If we accept that war is very much a last resort and that living through a war is a miserable, soul-destroying experience, why are we trying to bring any of this language and ways of working in to our workplacess?

History’s heroes

When it comes to work and leadership role models, people look to the most easily recognisable and well known examples. Traditionally these are military leaders (Amazon for example has over 4000 books on Winston Churchill). It’s easy to turn to military leaders to look at how they succeeded and bring that in to the workplace. Also by basing everything around war and giving it the same kind of importance you create a bit of faux importance and urgency (which, as we will see, is not necessarily a good thing).

Not only do we look to historical figures, but historically when you look at the more traditional ways of working they followed similar structures to the military around a hierarchical management. So it’s no surprise that crossover occurs, especially when you consider that many members of the workforce served in the army in the middle of the last century and brought these practices with them.

So while we can understand how these words came to be used in everyday working language, the question is, do they matter or is this a fuss over nothing?

Words have power

Growing up we were always told ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ as adults, we know that that isn’t quite true.

In 2007 a neurobiological study looking at the effect of words on the brain found that seeing negative words even for a second could cause a ‘sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters’. Stress can impair logic, reason, communication and performance. If we think the best work comes out of positive environments, why are we using negative, potentially stress inducing language at work?

So what can we do to change this?

The simplest thing to do is to stop using negative fear inducing language at work and instead look at positive language. Let’s look at this through the lens of Threats vs Challenges.

How we view a task can make a huge difference to our performance. A 2003 study at the University of California looked at athletic performance based on if someone viewed a task as a challenge or a threat. Athletes at the University were asked to give a speech to their class, based on their cardiovascular indexes they were either evaluated as feeling threatened by giving the speech or saw it as a challenge. At the end of the season individual performance showed that those in the challenge group performed better than those in the threat group.

Would you rather work in an environment where work is a challenge or you feel under threat? I remember one time working at a company where users’ personal information had been shared with other users. In other companies a similar mistake would have seen people’s jobs being threatened, but instead of that, the team were offered support, reassurances and asked to fix the issue, which they did quickly. Threatening, negative language would have added nothing to the situation, people understood the importance of getting it fixed — shouting, threats and negative language would have just created anxiety and led to more mistakes.

Marginal gains add up

You may be asking yourself, how important it this? I would describe eradicating this language as a Critical Non Essential or Marginal Gain. British Cycling have used this method to devastating effect for over a decade becoming THE country to beat on the track. It was also a cornerstone of Sir Clive Woodward’s management philosophy that saw England triumphantly win the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The idea is that you find 100 things you can do 1% better, finding tiny gains you can make to improve your work. A great example is the change of rugby shirts England had in the early noughties. Traditionally, a rugby shirt was a baggy top that was easy to grab and tries could be stopped by grabbing a players shirt and pulling them down. Having seen this, Woodward worked with Nike to develop a skin tight polyester top that was harder to grab. That year England won the World Cup. They were the only team in the skin tight top. Did they win it because of the top? No. Did it help? Yes. They found one thing that could improve by 1%, now all teams wear this kind of top.

I view War and negative language as a Critical Non Essential, by getting rid of it we can help to improve performance by 1%. The use of this language can lead to negative performance in some people, so by getting rid of it we would improve performance.

I don’t believe the use of war language improves performance, I think it can only negatively affect performance and output, so how do we practically make marginal gains through small changes to the way we use language at work?

De-militarising language at work

Firstly, challenge it wherever you may see it. When I’m told about a ‘War room’ I ask which country we are invading? Or when I’m told the issue has a ‘Severity rating’ I ask for the body count. These may seem flippant responses (which they are), but they do highlight how ridiculous these terms are at a technology company (which they are).

Secondly, and most importantly, adapt the language you personally use so:

Situation or Planning Room instead instead of War room

Get everyone together instead of rally the troops

Priority instead of Severity

‘Doing well’ instead of ‘killing it’

And just altogether avoiding ‘Boots on the ground’ and ‘in the trenches’

If we can avoid using language that creates fear and anxiety and by removing ‘to the death’ competition, then we will hopefully see small 1% gains in our teams outputs; meaning we all benefit.


Award-winning digital product development studio in London and San Francisco