At a recent social event an acquaintance told me about a corporate cost-reduction program he was leading. At least I think that’s what he was talking about. To my ears it sounded like a word salad of warmed over MBA-speak: strategic ... belt tightening ... turn around ... fiscal restraint … new direction ... metrics ... aggressive examination of costs ...
Every sector and industry has its own jarring jargon, whether it’s an academic paper with sentences so long that you can’t keep track of the idea being developed, or corporatese – words that enter the business vocabulary and are so overused, or misused, that they don’t communicate anything.
Jargon has a function, establishing boundaries between those “in the know” and outsiders. But it can also be a convenient cover for being too lazy to think through what is being expressed, or for lack of imagination.
Which words and phrases in the business world drive people crazy? I “reached out” to clients and friends working at the epicentre of corporate jargon – mostly in HR, marketing, and business consulting roles – and came up with this list:
1. Value add: This got the most votes for most awful. If you are not adding value then why are you doing it? Does it mean that without the value add we are receiving or delivering “value subtracted”? Is the product or service lacking value before the “add”? The minimum threshold should be to provide value. The rest is a nice touch – a treat – and should be considered as such.
2. Strategic (anything): I have several clients who marinate every sentence with a “strategic” something. They also use “strategic” and “senior” as exemplars of the same concept. For example, said in a dismissive tone: “I wouldn’t listen to her. She’s not strategic. She’s not senior.”
Using the “S” word may make the speaker feel important, but in my experience there is an inverse relationship between the number of times someone says it and how conceptual the person’s thinking is. Whether it is “high-level strategy,” “strategic thinking” or “strategic value,” this one gets backs up. As one MBA consultant put it, “When I hear, ‘We are changing our strategic direction,’ I hear, ‘blah, blah, blah,’ or think, the end is nigh. The company has lost its vision of what it does and for whom.”
3. Heavy lifting: This means doing something unpleasant or challenging. But if you aren’t lifting weights, spell out what the challenge or problem is.
4. Win-win: We all get what this means. But it implies the opposite of what is intended – that disagreements or different points of view lead to winners and losers. Instead of believing one party “wins” and the other “loses” or both “win,” think about feeling okay with the outcome.
Compromise usually means a solution that meets both parties’ needs to some degree. You may not feel great about the result, but you can live with it. Nobody “wins.” Sometimes, someone identifies a brilliant alternative solution that all parties agree on and feel great about. But unless it is a race, they still haven’t won anything.
5. Team player: This entrenched reflexive shorthand equates the gold standard for being a high performer with someone who plays nice. But most interesting ideas come from awkward renegades who ruffle feathers. To me, being a team player is not necessarily a recommendation.
6. Gen (anything): Cartoon stereotypes of different generations have been translated into the belief that when you were born has a greater influence on taste and personality than family, social class and education. Judging from the number of conferences, books and training programs devoted to this subject, it would appear that the major challenge to the managerial world is how to communicate with Gen Y.
Obviously the zeitgeist influences us, but if belonging to a certain generation were more important than anything else, a baby-boomer professor would have more in common with a 60-year-old potato picker than an educated fortysomething urbanite.
7. Cycles: When someone says “I don’t have the cycles,” it means: “I don’t have the time, or capacity, or I don’t want to.” My informants want it banned for its ugliness and meaninglessness.
8. Think outside the box: Thinking is an electrical activity and your brain does not resemble a box. As one HR consultant said, “People who use this phrase are the least creative.”
9. Work life balance/harmony: Instead of trying to find clever ways to chase an impossible state – a life in which you have control over the amount of time and energy you give to work and the energy and time left for your personal life – why not eliminate this concept entirely? It isn’t balance you desire, it is spending time in roles most important to you.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: bmoses.com