Do You Have A Jargon Problem?

We’ve experimentally demonstrated what you may have already suspected: People use jargon not just to communicate, but also to show off. 

Zachariah Brown, Eric Anicich, Adam Galinsky

Do you have a jargon problem?

Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly – and used well, it does. The danger comes from using it out of context, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

Prime offender this week was the return of the BBC’s Line of Duty , which included dialogue such as ‘a chis handler’ receiving ‘intel graded A1 on the matrix’ and the need to have a ‘conflab with the SFC’. Is that language necessary to tell the story, or is this just a fairly standard cop show attempting to make out it’s more clever than it really is?

If jargon is so disliked, why do we put up with it and why is it so common?

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review outlines that jargon thrives in workplaces because it fulfils a number of fundamental needs. In some contexts, it produces efficient and accurate communication. For example, air traffic controllers speak with a phonetic alphabet instead of letters for this very reason – reading a plane tail number as “Alpha Bravo12” instead of “AB12”.

However the researchers found another motive for using jargon: insecurity and the desire for status. People can compensate for a lack of status by trying to signal that they have more of it than they actually do. They may conspicuously advertise their accomplishments or highlight their memberships in prestigious groups for professional advantage. This is why jargon can be found to be more prevalent in hierarchical environments where titles are not just seen to be important, they actually are. Indeed, many of our structure charts seem to approximate the kind of language used in the military or law enforcement.

As the report outlines – there’s a clear way to call this out “If you want to reduce excessive jargon use in your company, start with communications from the top.”. Lower status workers use jargon precisely because they associate it with status, so breaking that association is key. Executive communications “that use clear and unambiguous language can help set the tone”.

There’s also a link between jargon and what has come to be termed workplace bullshit. As Ian P McCarthy and his fellow researchers note – the term “bullshit” has moved from being a relatively mild expletive to a term that is used to describe acts of communication that have little grounding in truth.

As they write in the aptly titled This Place Is Full Of It corporate jargon is one example of ‘organisational bullshit’ whereby words or expressions are used in an attempt to legitimise something,whilst at the same time confusing language and thinking. They refer to a number of bullshit expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “out-of-the-box thinking”, which are often used as vague buzzwords with minimal substance.

Both the papers are well worth reading but as someone who works in organisational design the most important aspect of the findings for me is about the effects of jargon and how excessive use can exclude people or even cause harm.

Language matters. Inertia is a big driver of all of our behaviour. People not understanding us means they don’t take action. As the paper states “it is possible that the excessive use of acronyms and jargon may occur to employees as an exclusionary mechanism in the workplace, whereby those unfamiliar with the terminology may not be able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation or voice their concerns.”

When it comes to health services, it can be worse as communication can be a matter of life or death. In this edition of Word of Mouth , they relate the story of how a patient is told their cancer results are positive. After the patient audibly breathes a sigh of relief the consultant corrects himself “Oh no, I mean the test is positive, the cancer has returned.” An example is also given of a patient receiving a visitor on an oncology ward and neither of them having any idea that oncology is in anyway connected with the treatment of cancer.

Technical “sublanguage” starts out as a shorthand way to speed processes and clarify complex situations. That becomes a problem when outsiders don’t understand it.

Back to Line of Duty. I was so irritated by the excessive acronym use that I almost turned it off (I didn’t). However the real world consequences of jargon can lead to the worst possible outcome – people stop listening to us

Society only thrives when everyone understands one another. And now more than ever we need to focus on what unites us, not on what divides us.

The Rise Of Business Bullshit – And How We Can Fight It

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” – Harry Frankfurt  On Bullshit

Many people in the social sector will have heard about the 80/20 rule –  that 80% of the demand comes from 20% of users.

It’s one of those things that seems to intuitively make sense. If we can solve the problem of the 20% of people who are sapping all our resources – then the world would be a much better place.

Except of course….it’s bullshit.

Recent work by our own Insight team found the belief that a small group of users were responsible for a disproportionate amount of contact with us simply had no foundation.

So why do these myths – dangerous in that they lend themselves to silver bullet solutions – swirl around the modern workplace?

John V. Petrocelli is the author of a new paper which looks at the Antecedents of Bullshitting and the conditions that need to exist to encourage people to bullshit. 

First of all, bullshitting is not the same as lying, which is a deliberate and premeditated attempt to conceal the facts.

By contrast, bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is. They are simply communicating with little or no regard for evidence, established knowledge, or truth.

Petrocelli ran two experiments that revealed major factors that might cause someone to bullshit:

  • Firstly, people bullshitted most when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed their audience didn’t know much about the subject. Even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure to contribute something kicked in.
  • Secondly, if there is no accountability for bullshit, it’s more likely to happen.  People appear to be more likely to bullshit when it’s perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to do without challenge.

As Petrocelli says – it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting, so it’s even more important we understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.

So how can we stem the flow of BS and encourage people to challenge its validity?

Four Tactics That May Reduce Bullshit

Get Better At Problem Definition

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions, not finding the best problems.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings

Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts -so said Andre Spicer

As Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.


There’s one big tactic for battling bullshit that Petrocelli identifies:

Evidence.

Certainly, we’ve become much more focused on being an evidence-based organisation – as Carole Clarke writes – we increasingly need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work.

We need to bust myths. Slay Zombie Projects.  And wage war on jargon.

An indifference to evidence breeds an indifference to the truth.

Nudging our organisations towards a more evidence-based culture becomes the surest way to stem the flow of bullshit, if not kill it.

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