As a freelancer, I know to appreciate the perks of working in the offices of large corporations from time to time.
For one thing, there’s often free coffee, subsidised porridge and post-weekend gossip. On the other hand, though, I frequently have absolutely no clue what anyone is saying.
Having sat in on a recent meeting at a company that shall remain unnamed, it dawned on me that while I was pretty certain that my bandwidth to complete the action plan was dependent on my colleagues’ availability to upskill me on the relevant vertical, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was actually meant to be doing. If anything at all.
All I could do was engage in some blue-sky thinking (preferably outside the box) and hope someone would have the capacity to circle back - or at least ping me - to fill in the blanks and determine my strategic priority.
Corporate jargon is my nemesis and it’s as prevalent and grating as those emails prompting you to reboot your computer to install updates or complete compliance training.
I hate words like “utilise” and “dovetail”, “pivot” and “upscale”. Phrases like “move the dial” and “take offline” - aside from often meaning absolutely nothing - make the nerves around my eyes twitch a little. I enthusiastically chortled at an acquaintance’s recent definition of the Sheryl Sandberg-coined term, “Lean in”: “Getting closer to the toilet bowl to throw up after hearing the CEO speak at the latest town hall”.
Perhaps a little harsh but, at this point, comic relief is welcomed.
Conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues indicate that I’m not alone in my detest of management blather, so why’s it still so widely used? And what can we do to ensure that terms like “glocalisation” never have to be uttered with a straight face?
André Spicer, a professor of organisational behavior at Cass Business School, and the author of book called ‘Business Bullshit’, claims in an article for Harvard Business Review that there are three possible approaches.
The first (which I’ve so far employed to no avail), is to ridicule it. I mean honestly, would you be able to take someone seriously who wants to be able to reap the rewards of low-hanging fruit or gamify the landscape in an impactful way? The theory goes that making fun of a turn of phrase diminishes its authority. But my limited experience has taught me that people are more than happy to giggle along before getting right back to performing their value-added deep-dive of the Big Data. After all, it really is best practice.
We move on to option two, which Spicer describes as trying to “harness bullshit for your own ends”.
He refers to a CIA document dating back to 1944 which advised partisans in Europe on the best ways to verbally resist the Nazis. Rebellious managers, Spicer cites from the document, should “talk as frequently as possible and at great length”, “bring up irrelevant issues”, and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do”. Fantastic when you’re trying to win a war. Not so great when you want to - oh, I don’t know - do your job.
So that leaves us with option three: a blanket ban. Numerous companies have tried to cut bullshit phrases from their communal corporate vocabulary. But the risk of such a policy backfiring have been demonstrated by none other than David Cameron. Remember him?
Spicer reminds us that Cameron’s campaign led Michael Gove to circulate a letter echoing a call for less jargon and preciser phrasing. His writing contained the following gem of a sentence: “Of course, on occasion, some factual detail, such as the inadvisability of ending a sentence with a preposition or the folly of using impact as a verb or even the ugliness of behaviours as a usage when behaviour covers a variety of human activity, might require a complex longer sentence.”
I genuinely can’t tell if there’s a joke in that.
My conclusion is that there’s no easy way to successfully encourage people to speak in plain English - even though I’m adamant that killing corporate speak would actually help people get things done.
For now I’ll leave you with a feeble plea to self-police. Swap your 360 degree reviews for plain old appraisals and your functionally-zoned brainstorming sessions for a good old boozy lunch. It might take some time for you to realign your synergised communication objectives. But trust me on this one: it’s most definitely not rocket science.