Mind Your Language

This post has been developed with my good friend, Anne Marie McEwan. In preparing for the kick-off session for an Innovation Lab for Finance Leaders that we are organising in London in November (more about that later in the post), we got to talking about how the language we use in the workplace controls, distorts and inhibits meaning.

Management speak. Corporate jargon. Business cliché. These are phrases that require absolutely no introduction or explanation. The use of opaque, over-elaborate, pretentious and nonsensical language in the workplace is a phenomenon that has become wholly normalised. Our contention is that the harm this is doing to organisational effectiveness (and hence performance) is far greater than many of us realise and therefore its consequences require proper research and evaluation.

So without the benefit of such empirical evidence, why do we believe this?

Anne Marie

I fell into academia twenty years ago in the most practical way possible, exploring how manufacturers designed systems to support autonomous decision-making, problem-solving and continuous innovation on factory shopfloors. Employee empowerment, at the core of process approaches like Total Quality Management, Lean and Just-In-Time, was then all the rage. Employee engagement? Been there, done that.

All my work as an academic since then has been equally practical, applying the principles and insights from my factory days and approaches to thinking and acting in complex contexts to executive education. So far so unrepentant. Academia at its best promotes creative and critical thinking, reflecting and doing.

What academics, on the whole, are dreadful at is writing about and communicating their ideas. Despite the practical focus of everything I’ve ever done, the trap that I fell into was to talk and write like an academic – at times turgid, tedious, incomprehensible and alienating. I’m trying hard to stop it but occasionally still slip back into old habits.


As long as I can remember, I have had a phobia of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. I can’t pinpoint the trigger event but whatever it was, it has led to a lifetime of verbose explanations and clarifications, anything and everything to avoid my intentions, words and actions not being crystal clear.

This has resulted in my very keen interest in understanding what organisational purpose ‘management speak’ is trying to serve. I think the answer as to why we use language at work that we would not dream of using with our families and friends can be found in a combination of some or all of the following:

  • It is a tool of company politics and statecraft. Its impenetrability arguably perpetuates organisational power relations.
  • It subtly mitigates risk and liability and diminishes personal responsibility by obfuscating the facts, hiding problems, deflecting attention, shifting the blame and evading scrutiny.
  • Class-based snobbery can be found at the middle and upper echelons of many modern businesses. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is that ‘bureaucratese’ is seen as signifying professionalism and intelligence (or at least creates the illusion thereof) amongst those who wish to be seen as strategic and relevant.
  • It reflects societal norms. Our culture encourages limited attention spans and immediate gratification and we attach great value to the glamorous. There is not much stock in attention to detail or the mundane and the anodyne even though there is much understanding to be found there. Front-line, operational knowledge is just not sexy enough.

As ever, there are unintended consequences. The upbeat and euphemistic language of corporate communications is almost exclusively deployed around a desired narrative; it very rarely tells the brutal truth. Perhaps inevitably then, it has become an impediment to employees getting knowledge, understanding, learning and improving their work. This in turn creates and augments a reality gap which is damaging and divisive, undermines customers’ experience of your goods and services and leads to considerable waste. In short, it is bad business.

So why is our corporate language not challenged or called-out more often? I think this is a double-edged sword: employees are generally reluctant, quite understandably, to get themselves noticed for the wrong reasons and managers tend not to take too kindly to the wisdom of their words being questioned. Equally, it is human nature to keep quiet even if you do not understand what is being said to you as most people fear being perceived as being slow off the mark or dim-witted.

If all this seems overly judgemental, I should add that there have been many occasions during my career when I have been guilty of management speak as charged…

Innovation Lab for Senior Finance Executives

Our jointly-held conviction is that there is so much that ought to be known about how to organise, lead and manage companies – you know, in ways that are simultaneously good for customers, good for shareholders and good for the people within and across the business who work together to make it all happen. This is being significantly undermined, in our opinion, by the widespread failure to convey meaning effectively.

We mentioned the kick-off session for an Innovation Lab for Senior Finance Executives Attendance we are organising in London in November. This is by invitation only. Please do contact either of us via LinkedIn if you would like to know more.

The aim of the Innovation Lab is to help senior finance executives to develop the skills they will need for getting (and staying) on top of complex business. This is done through talking, thinking and challenging together, and sharing and learning from each other’s experience – as well as assessing the evidence that underpins our convictions i.e. how well do our convictions stand up against the evidence?

Ours is a social, practical and solution-focused approach to learning in complex contexts. An added bonus is that the Innovation Lab participants will learn how to apply our methods in their own companies as well, which will mean confronting the language problem.

Say What We Mean

The wrong sort of language undermines our ability to bring our authentic selves to work. Our friend Khurshed Dehnugara argues very persuasively that work is evolving from the Industrial Age to the Age of Connection, and this evolution depends to a very large extent on our being able to re-connect not only with our true selves at work but the true selves of those around us at work as well as society as a whole.

We need to use the same language at work, and in our learning, that we use in our private and personal lives. Effective communications means conveying meaning without ambiguity and simplifying relentlessly without dumbing down. By having the courage and honesty to be, and to speak as, our authentic selves, we can build far more effective and successful organisations.

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