For this column, I decided to think outside the box while conducting a deep dive on a pressing issue in the corporate world that continues to undermine an employee’s core competency: corporate jargon.
My goal is not only to get buy in from readers, but I want to move the needle on this discussion, which I hope will result in a paradigm shift in our thinking about how we butcher the English language in the workplace.
If you made it this far, then you are likely well versed in this particular dialect used almost exclusively by corporations. I’m surely not the only one who has left a meeting littered with the latest corporate jargon, wondering where I can find a translator.
So let’s take the 50,000-foot view for a moment. Language is meant to convey thoughts, ideas, descriptions and actions. Precision is a virtue, as is accessibility. In a world where knowledge is power and intellectual ability is a competitive commodity, we are often desperate to cling to whatever we can grasp in an insecure job market.
Jargon is a way to exclude others and identify oneself as a member of an inner circle. That inner circle comes with its own rules and language, which are constantly evolving.
While corporate speak makes meetings amusing to those who have seen the playbook, are upstream from the liabilities, and are determined not to be collateral damage, it seriously undermines effective communications and the cultural value of inclusiveness.
In a recently published book, Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?, author Steven Poole writes, “Office-speak is a maddeningly viral kind of ‘Unspeak’ engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations.”
Yet, while I laugh at the jargon – joining in on Facebook pages that mock it, I’m also far from innocent when it comes to using it. I admit, I often use the word “ask” as a noun and have been known to throw around other gems such as “touch base “ and “thought-leadership.”
I reached out to Dan Pontefract, a Telus executive in Vancouver and the author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization, who explained how corporate jargon undermines a person’s ability to lead.
“Jargon provides familiarity and comfort; however, it can create a false sense of leadership security. Spitting out clichés and overworn vernacular may give you the feeling as though you’re effectively leading, but in reality it brands leaders as shallow and lacking true leadership depth,” Mr. Pontefract said.
So why can’t we resist? I touched base with Sarah Vermunt, founder of Careergasm, a Toronto-based career and entrepreneur coaching company, who concedes that corporate speak makes its users feel included and many culprits don’t even notice they are doing it.
“I used to work for an organization that used a ton of acronyms. I’d go for dinner with friends, some of whom worked with me, and I’d occasionally notice us speaking in code while our other friends scrunched their noses in confusion,” she recalled.
Not all jargon is bad, she said, but it can undermine your leadership ability, if you are using terms that clients and employees aren’t familiar with.
“If jargon truly is part of the shared language, using a few – and I stress few – key words that carry meaning can help facilitate the discussion,” she added.
One final risk of spouting jargon is that certain terminology can spur unintended reactions. Mr. Pontefract said he runs for the door when he hears the word “synergies.” Ms. Vermunt remains sensitive to the word “engagement.” My most despised phrase is “opening the kimono.” I find it lecherous.
For Glain Roberts-McCabe, founder and president of the Executive Roundtable, the issue is less about jargon and more about juvenile word choices, such as “my bad.”
“Saying ‘oops, my bad’ when you’re in a leadership role makes you sound like an adolescent and, depending on the severity of the situation, can make you look like you’re blowing it off with a shrug. Cutesy phrases don’t make you sound strategic. They make you sound like you’re trying too hard to relive your 20s.”
That’s sage advice from thought leaders in the field. I’m hoping now that we can close the loop on this conversation.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org