Don't get me wrong. CEOs tend to be very smart.

They're adept and precise when dealing with financials. They have a natural ability to either inspire or manipulate (or both) the people who work for them (high EQ). And CEOs usually have a strong technical grasp of their specific industry. 

Even so, almost all CEOs (and indeed almost all of the managers who report to them) habitually use imprecise terminology that makes it difficult for them to think clearly about certain subjects, specifically management theory and technology trends.

Take the Open Plan Offices debacle, for instance.

Companies spent billions upon billions of dollars setting up these facilities, even though for years the scientific consensus has been that they decrease productivity far more than they convey any measurable benefits. And now, with a new Harvard study, it's clear that the supposed benefits were largely fictional.

When I pointed recently pointed out the sad fact that Open Plan Offices are therefore nothing more than a dumb management fad, several comments on that post suggested that the REAL reason CEOs embraced such designs is that the CEOs were just cynically trying to save money.

However, few CEOs are mustache-twirling cost-cutters (though they do exist). Moreover, companies pay big money to set up these showplace offices, and floor space isn't really all that large an expense except in very high-rent areas. And finally, when did a CEO ever need an excuse to cut costs?

No, CEOs embraced the Open Plan en masse because they genuinely believed it would, to use their words, "increase collaboration," "make employees more innovative," "transform the workplace," and "create a more nimble culture." (etc. etc. etc.)

Unfortunately, those phrases (chanted like catechismic mantras throughout the business world) are simply consultant-speak whose validity (born of endless repetition) seems self-evident but which, on closer examination, proves to be so vague that it lacks any real meaning.

Take "increase collaboration," for instance. Yes, we all have a vague idea of what that means and, gosh darn-it, the idea sounds absolutely peachy, but what does "increase collaboration" mean, really? How would you measure it? And if you can't precisely define or measure something, how can you know whether it's useful? Or even real?

Or, take "transform the workplace." Sure, the phrase sounds wicked important and forward-looking and all of that, but what does it mean, really? How would you measure it? And if you can't precisely define or measure something, how can you know whether it's worth spending billions of dollars upon?

Unfortunately, there are entire libraries of business books published each year that consist entirely of this kind of verbal fluff, hot-airy concepts whose definitions consist of yet more biz-blab, all of which reinforce each other and seem to make sense (sort of) but which lack any grounding in the real world.

A near-perfect parallel to these circular abstractions is theology--a complex discipline with an extensive jargon and expansive literature that is ultimately sterile (and frankly a bit ridiculous) because it attempts to prescribe human behavior based upon subject matter (God) about which nobody knows precisely anything.

The fuzzy language of consultant-speak (or theologian-speak, for that matter) is dangerous because, according to neuroscience, language doesn't just reflect thought, it pre-determines and delimits the thoughts that a brain is capable of thinking. Put simply: jargon makes you stupid. Especially smart people. 

Specifically in this case, the influence of consultant-speak jargon on their thought processes makes CEOs who are otherwise quite brilliant become impenetrably woodenheaded when they struggle with management theory or technology trends.

Thus we have management fads, like Open Office, where the sum of the argument "FOR" consists of self-reinforcing, semi-religious jargon (buttressed by selectively remembered anecdotes) while the argument "AGAINST" consists of multiple peer-reviewed research studies.

In short, CEOs are so easily fooled into adopting management fads because decades of exposure to ubiquitous biz-blab has scrambled their brains to the point where just about any egregious bullsh*t seems plausible, resulting in an insurmountable confirmation bias against actual scientific research.

In other words, until CEOs stop spouting and harkening unto the facile seductions of biz-blab, their brains will remain broken and the endless stream of management fads will continue to trouble our long-suffering workplaces, per omnia saeculo saeculorum, amen.

Published on: Aug 15, 2018