Corporate jargon – showing willing or showing off?

January 5, 2016

Before we ‘drill down’ to a ‘granular level’ and go for the ‘low-hanging fruit’, I wanted to ‘verbalise’ how we can ‘deep-dive the issue’ and ‘contextualise it’ before ‘spinning up a team’ to ‘put a different lens on it’.

While this is without doubt a rather exaggerated example of corporate jargon, it won’t be the first time most of you have heard these phrases. Add to that more traditional clichés such as ‘outside the box’, ‘blue-sky thinking’, it’s on my radar’ and ‘close of play’ and you could write a whole dictionary of ambiguous, and in some cases downright bizarre, phrases used in the workplace.

This deliberate obfuscation of language, or in other words, saying things in a way that makes it difficult to understand, is nothing new. Indeed, in the early 20th century, English novelist George Orwell campaigned for the removal of overcomplicated writing, while in 1948, British Civil Servant Sir Ernest Gowers wrote a book entitled Plain Words, which has been reprinted over and over, most recently in 2014, and has never been out of print.

However, despite a string of campaigns to rid the English language of jargon, its prevalence has never been greater than it is today, particularly in the workplace. Whether it’s a new name for a new way of doing something, a new name for an old way of doing something, or an attempt to make something mundane sound rather better than it actually is, it all has the same effect: creates a clique of those in-the-know and isolates the majority.

The unusual thing about jargon, particularly in a business context, is the way it comes and goes, says one management consultant. “It can be very effective in the early days to describe a new method or process, however it can become outdated very quickly and you have to be prepared to stop using it as quickly as you started.”

Where this time last year, people were talking about ‘ramping up’ a team, the phrase today is to ‘spin up’ a team. In the same way, terms such as ‘best practice’, ‘leverage’ and ‘empower’ are all now considered to be out-of-date.

Another thing to consider when assessing the impact of using jargon, is what it is used for. For example, the world ‘agile’, used to describe a way of carrying out a project, is used as both an adjective and a noun, and has much more longevity than ambiguous phrases such as ‘let’s park that’ or ‘take it offline’, which are more colloquial and can be prone to different personal interpretation.

Moreover, it is surprising that at a time when clarity and transparency have never been more important, illusion-creating jargon has never been more commonplace. When used too liberally, buzzwords can become a crutch, filling silences and helping to convince us that our actions are taking us in the right direction. In many situations it is easier to use buzzwords than it is to actually say what matters clearly.

There is also the added issue that buzzwords can mean different things to different people in different contexts. What to one may be key to developments in their industry, may be obscure and pretentious to another. Furthermore, new words being used to describe an old idea, can in some cases create a barrier to understanding for some people.

So, while you may think you’re in with the lingo, when using corporate jargon, be aware that in some environments it can leave people feeling confused, annoyed and in some cases unengaged.  A recent survey by the London-based Institute of Leadership and Management revealed that while ‘management speak’ is used in almost two-thirds of offices, nearly a quarter consider it to be a pointless irritation.

To put it simply and in plain English, communication is a key skill within any business and if you’re using language that doesn’t get your message across then you’re failing in an essential part of your role.


Today’s hottest buzzwords and their meaning:

Let me socialise that – let me bring it to the attention of my colleagues

Let’s put a different lens on it – look at it from a different angle

Let’s run this up the flagpole – let’s present this idea

Thoughtshower – brainstorm

Spin up a team – build a team

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