The Affliction of Corporate Speak

I end my CEO Program with the six things a CEO must do to lead with purpose. One of them is this: your words must have meaning. Although neologisms have always been a integral part of business communications, their occurrence in the workplace is viral. If everyone agreed to use language in the way it should be used, which is to communicate effectively, the workday would be shorter and a lot more productive.

I understand the need for metaphors to explain difficult concepts. In my teaching, I use them all the time to aid comprehension. But when the intended message becomes meta-talk that goes right over our heads, confusion and misunderstanding results. When we have to ask “what does that mean?” (which few actually do), it suggests we’re uninformed or, worse, stupid. When we don’t understand what’s being said, we feel like outsiders. Corporate gibberish impairs communication. Moreover, it contributes to the deepening information glut in which we are already drowning.

The danger we inflict by using irritating buzz words and fluff isn’t just their capacity to bewilder and annoy us. It’s that it contaminates normal discourse. Once we hear a new word spoken by those we think are cool, erudite or brilliant in their domains of expertise, it risks becoming part of our own vocabulary. Being human, we yield to the onslaught of garbage words passively if not gracefully. We borrow them, then they penetrate and become lodged in our brains, from which their “stickiness” is difficult to delete or override.

One buzzword seems to beget another. Like pollution, we can’t stop generating even more garbage words. Which may be one reason the English language is three times larger than that of the next closest mother tongue. Multitask (doing two things at once) has become “parallel path.” Customer service is re-christened “customer care.” Meetings are now “syncs.” We mash up metaphors as a way of signaling our acumen. Jargon conflates common usage with specialist connotations: business phraseology is replete with bold athletic and wartime terms – call to action, blitzscaling, the front lines and trenches. Firms win or lose strategic battles. Innovation is revolutionary. The market is a radar screen. Companies don’t fail, they die.

Of course, this has always been the case. Over 100 years ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor borrowed from the language of manufacturing to define human capabilities in the workplace with words like output and productive capacity. In the eighties, corporate speak was infused by Wall Street lingo like leverage, stakeholder and value-add. Big tech brought us computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, double-click, talking off-line and leveling up. Where phrases like “We may have to banana-boat the IT budget” came from I do not know.

Technology and a yearning to appear knowledgeable about it transformed communications. We now Google information. An online seminar is a webinar. Your Twitter status is your Tweet cred. Someone who’s deemed clueless is a 404. If you’re new to an internet community, you’re a noob. A troll is someone who posts inflammatory, rude or obnoxious comments. An ego surfer is searching for his or her name on the web. Growth hacking, parallelization and first-mover advantage are now part of the corporate vernacular.

Many of the words we use in business today originated with a specific author. These include: Terence Deal (corporate culture), Michael Porter (competitive advantage), Thomas Stewart (intellectual capital), Clayton Christensen (creative disruption), Mary Parker Follett (participatory management), Kelly Johnson (skunk works), Douglas McGregor (theory X and theory Y), Michael Hammer (corporate re-engineering), Peter Senge (learning organization), Daniel Goleman (emotional intelligence), Thomas Davenport (analytics), Vijay Govindarajan (reverse innovation) and John Kotter (change management). I could add dozens more. This is corporate speak at its finest simply because, beneath the label, each term has an expansive explanation or a theory of application.

Some new-age speak borders on nonsensical. Sheryl Sandberg said we should “bring our whole selves to work.” Who else would we bring? Tony Hsieh talked about “evolving organically.” How else would we do it? Celebrities and comedians make up new words all the time. Stephen Colbert’s coined the term “truthiness” in response to the Trump era in the White House. This is the belief that a statement is true based on either intuition or perception without regard to evidence, logic or intellectual examination. I would argue that a lot of buzzwords have their origin in truthiness.

Verbs and adjectives are forced into being nouns (and nouns into verbs). A blizzard of non-words, through force of repetition, become “wordlike” (complexify, replatform, shareability, take-away and directionality are examples). In an environment of constant scrutiny, it’s sometimes safer to use words that signify nothing but can be stretched to mean almost anything.

Most business acronyms (like RACI, MBWA and SMART) are only understood within the organization or community that conceives them. This was a challenge for me years ago as my children introduced me to texting – I had to ask, or figure out, what OMG, LoL and BFF (among several others) meant. Even those who have membership in a group often fail to understand them – a survey of Republicans found that 49% were unable to explain the meaning of their party’s initials (GOP).

Deciphering business jargon is like peeling an onion – there are layers of meaning: what was said, what it means literally and figuratively, and what the speaker actually wants to say. For example, what does “let’s circle back on that” imply? It could mean “let’s revisit it later.” But what if the intended message is “Let’s just let it go – I’d rather not deal with it”? Corporate speak obfuscates, masks intent and confuses. And miscommunication lowers trust, engenders uncertainty and both often result in unproductive conflict.

Some use metonyms in an effort to be “in” with younger workers, failing to realize their corporate speak from a bygone era is more a revelation they’re actually on the outside looking foolish. Words and phrases that seem to indicate knowledge or authority include hyphenated substitutes (like omni-channel or business-critical) and hybrid terms like email blast, integrated deck and deep dive. If you’re a Boomer (or even an early Gen-Xer) in a meeting with a Millennial, you may want to revert to plain, old-fashioned English. From clarity comes understanding and, with that, comes focus and better execution.

Whether puffery, gibberish or a consequence of a 140-character universe, the affliction of corporate speak is more than annoying. It’s malevolent communication. It doesn’t simplify workplace cohesion and collaboration; it mystifies and complicates it. Back to where I began – your words should mean something. And since meaning is in the receiver, not the sender, don’t assume they mean what you think.