Leon Gettler: Buzzword bull


On the same page, thought leadership, paradigm shift, out of the loop, result-focused, total quality, ballpark, ticks in boxes, value-add, touch base, think outside the box, stretch the envelope, put this one to bed, close the loop, at the end of the day, hot button, interface, killer apps, focus collectively as a group, user friendly, bells and whistles, benchmark, slippery slope, win-win, bandwidth, brainstorming, teamwork, shared goals, human capital, strategic fit, zero sum game, leveraging, tool kit, tool set and upscaling.

These are just a few examples of all the management jargon and buzzwords creeping into everyday language these days. If you want to get a feeling for how prevalent it is, check these Dilbert cartoons. “Let’s schedule a scenario-based-roundtable discussion about our enterprise project management.” The askthemanager site lists other annoying phrases like, for example, low hanging fruit (in other words, easy), take it offline (as opposed to discuss it later),  action item (meaning task) and so on. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, more managers are using these sorts of expressions. Now, every profession has its jargon but management jargon is particularly insidious because it creeps into our day to day work. More than 60 years ago, in his essay Politics and the English Language,  George Orwell said the aim of jargon was to mislead. He wrote: “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink”. The other problem, he said, was that it stopped people thinking. “Every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain,” Orwell said. He could have been talking about some of those business buzzwords.

The Australian Institute of Management has addressed this by releasing a version of Buzzword Bingo and some handy software, delightfully called Bullfighter, which detects jargon and complicated language and then suggests an alternative word or phrase.  Forbes has even developed a bracket where people get to vote via Twitter on the single most annoying example of business jargon and, by doing so, thoroughly embarrass all who employ it.

Not bad ideas, they’re a good start. But tackling business jargon actually takes a lot of work. As a manager, you need to understand the impact it’s having on people and the reasons why people use it. “People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place,” author Karen Friedman told Forbes.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, author Dan Pallotta says that business jargon is “not a value-add” (which is jargon in itself but let’s play a straight bat to that).  He says jargon puts barriers up that prevent us from understanding anything. Managers who want to avoid jargon need to be authentic, he says.

Pallotta goes into more detail here: “You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you internalize this. Observe it, deconstruct it, and appreciate just how ridiculous most business conversation has become.  You will gain tremendous credibility, become much more productive, make those around you much more productive, and experience a great deal more joy in your working life if you look someone in the eye after hearing one of these verbal brain jammers and tell the person, ‘I don’t have any idea what you just said to me.’ ”

What are some of the worst examples of management jargon you’ve come across? How should it be managed?

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