You don't have to watch Office Space to know that the business world is often laced with a bunch of words that you didn't have to learn for the SATs.
I'm not talking about industry-specific jargon. That stuff, at least, is understandable--specific elements of specific businesses often require a new set of terms.
Something people find eminently more laughable, though, is the use of words that hardly seem to have any meaning at all. "Synergy" might be the king of these buzzwords, but terms like "ideate" and "authenticity" register on the scale as well.
As you can tell, I'm no fan of corporate jargon. So I was thrilled when I stumbled upon TalkLikeTheBoss.com, a website devoted to defining (and, of course, mocking) some of the more egrigious business buzzwords out there.
Behind the scenes, running the site, is Georgia-based corporate-culture consultant Steele Champion. Champion spoke with me about how reliance on jargon serves to cloud leaders' meaning and--in his view--turn off employees. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
OK, first and foremost, what's your least favorite buzzword and why?
That’s a difficult question because I hate so many business buzzwords. I’d say the buzzword "opportunity" has been making my blood boil as of late. Here’s why: In any other context, an "opportunity" is something that we should be grateful for. Our parents teach us to seek out opportunities and express gratitude when we receive one.
- Thought leader
But leave it to cowardly bosses to change the meaning of "opportunity" to convey that something needs to be improved, to avoid using [some other] term that is universally accepted as negative. I remember one of my corporate clients pulling me aside to explain their unspoken policy of replacing horrible words like weakness and challenges with "opportunity." So instead of saying things like, "Your on-boarding process is weak in these areas," I should say, "Your on-boarding process has a few opportunity areas." And here I thought we were communicating with adults.
You're an employee-engagement consultant. Do you think jargon hurts engagement, and if so, why?
In my experience, buzzwords have a connection to employee engagement. For instance, when a company is facing financial hardship, each earnings report is usually met with a memo from the CEO to the workers. That letter is often laden with business buzzwords such as consolidate, restructure, streamline, pressure, headwind, and other buzzwords that employees can interpret as precursors to a wave of layoffs.
And many of these employees have expressed to me that they have lost trust in the leader as a result of that communication. They ultimately felt that the CEO tried to muddle the truth in a mixture of buzzwords. Employee-engagement studies have revealed that a lack of candor and transparency from leaders results in poor worker engagement.
Some buzzwords, such as synergy, are easily mockable because nobody seems to know what the hell they actually mean. Sometimes, though, they come off as cruel and inhuman: "impacts" for layoffs, or "opportunities," as you mentioned above. Which do you think is more of a problem?
I’d say both forms tend to cause problems from a communication perspective. For instance, I have literally seen a full-blown argument break out in the office because two people disagreed on whether they thought a certain director was a "thought leader" or not. Now, how stupid is that?
On a more serious note, I find business buzzwords such as "headcount" (a buzzword that refers to employees) particularly insensitive and inhuman. For instance, I occasionally attend meetings and hear comments such as, “Well if we decide to consolidate the Jacksonville call center, we’ll only lose a headcount of 200.” When I hear that being thrown around casually, especially in the context of layoffs, I often imagine how different it would be if I were to translate it by saying, "So you think we should fire 200 human beings?"
In situations like that, buzzwords are used as an instrument to desensitize very sensitive and personal topics. I abhor that usage of buzzwords the most because it transforms human beings into mere figures on someone’s spreadsheet.
When it comes to jargon, it seems like everybody claims to hate it, but then one day you walk into a company and it's like people are talking a different language. Why?
I’d say the primary reason business buzzwords occur is to convey connection. It's similar to an inside joke where a few individuals get the joke while outsiders do not. If you have ever been one of the people in on the joke, think about the immediate connection you felt to those who also understood it.
Likewise, I feel that most business buzzwords are used to silently say, "Hey, I’m part of the family because I know exactly what CTQ, BPL, QBR, and SPP mean." Workers that don't understand this ridiculous language of business buzzwords run the risk of being labeled an outsider. It’s conformity at its finest.
We can tell you like to make fun of this stuff, but is part of your goal to educate young professionals who might need to learn a thing or two about how executives talk? Do you think that greater understanding would benefit the younger workforce?
Definitely. I was and still am that young professional who strives to understand the law of the land. Unbeknownst to me, I was totally unprepared to communicate with the bosses when I entered the corporate world. It took me a few years to actually understand how to first interpret and then use business buzzwords effectively.
So, one of the primary reasons for launching TalkLikeTheBoss.com is to educate professionals on the language that is being used around them every workday. The site attracts young professionals who are eager to learn business jargon and seasoned professionals because it is laced with humor. And to be perfectly honest, I hold humor as the magic bullet that will save the world from business buzzwords. My hope is that people would see these buzzwords being defined and put into preposterous sentences, realize how silly they sound--and stop using them. Apparently I have high hopes.