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.

Indifference Towards Truth: Rebuilding Trust In a Post Lockdown World

If ever there was a time for critical thinking to make a comeback it’s right about now.

This post was written in week eight of the UK lockdown , 55 days in which we’ve generated more speculation, more opinion and more outright bullshit than at any other time in human history. (That statement , by the way, is also bullshit as I have no evidence for it whatsoever..)

This is the first worldwide crisis of the social media age – where mainstream media competes with podcasters and YouTubers to present the latest hot take. It’s interpreted and enhanced by a increasingly powerful citizen-led commentary on Facebook and Twitter , which provides the final version of the truth for many of our communities.

For example, coronavirus being a man-made disease designed and/or supported by Government to kill the elderly, the poor and to lower population levels isn’t just a fringe conspiracy theory. I have people in my timeline, people I’d previously thought as perfectly rational, sharing this freely.

The World Health Organisation has labelled the spread of fake news about the outbreak an “infodemic”. One thing is clear: a pandemic is no time for bullshit.

As we all begin to press the reset button and return to our schools, businesses and leisure activities it’s worth considering how misinformation is going to shape what comes next.

The people who left our offices on 20th March will not be the same when they return. They won’t want to sit at a hot desk. They won’t be making rounds of drinks for people. They may have doubts about their job security – and might even be distrustful of the actions their employer is taking to cope in this crisis.

How can corporate messaging – to our customers and our colleagues – cut through the infodemic?

Some useful pointers are contained in the most entertaining academic paper I’ve read in a whilst: Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit.

In the paper the authors, Ian McCarthy, David Hannah, Leyland Pitt and Jane McCarthy,  doubt that any organisation will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, but argue that by taking a number of steps, astute leaders can work toward stemming its flood.

“Most of us would agree that our workplaces are awash with bullshit” say the authors.  They contend bullshit crops up during meetings, corporate announcements and get togethers, as well as emails.

What counts as workplace bullshit?

The authors define workplace bullshit as “taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth”. This differs substantially from lying.  “A liar is someone who is interested in the truth, knows it, and deliberately misrepresents it. In contrast, a bullshitter has no concern for the truth and does not know or care what is true or is not.”

They provide a useful example to illustrate this point of a leader informing employees that a proposed strategic change will not result in job losses.

Lying: The leader knows there will be job losses but hides or manipulates the truth. The leader is lying by stating known untruths.

Bullshitting: The leader has no idea whether there will be job losses or not, and is thus not hiding or concealing the truth. The leader is bullshitting because they neither know nor care whether their statements are true or false.

The authors provide a useful tool for us to challenge misinformation – the wonderfully titled C.R.A.P framework.

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Rather than passively drown in BS we can first of all expect it – we are all bullshitters to a degree – but we can comprehend it, recognise it, act against it, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent it.

At work we’ve created the ideal petri dish for bullshit to spread. As the paper states the changing nature of communication in the corporate environment, email, video-conferencing, intranets, and shared screens, in addition to face-to-face conversations, paper memorandums, and conventional meetings provide extremely fertile ground.

I’d argue that this is exacerbated by 24/7 rolling news and social media that provides endless conversational space to fill. And the social media business model just doesn’t stack up unless that vacant space is filled – be it with truth or untruth.

Four Tactics That Might Prevent Bullshit

In a previous post I outlined a few ideas for reducing the spread of BS:

Get Better At Problem Definition:

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation.

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:

As Andre 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 too 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.

In Confronting Indifference the authors explore these themes more usefully and recommend that our organisations foster a culture of inviting employees to think critically— through scepticism, curiosity, and rational inquiry.

These are not always behaviours that our organisations invite. It’s a lot easier to manage a compliant herd than a questioning and curious crowd.

I’m already tired of the use of the phrase ‘new normal’ but I’m pretty certain that what comes next will require purposeful thinking and questioning on a scale we haven’t seen before.

Better solutions ultimately require better opinions.


 

As well the report paper cited one of the authors Ian McCarthy has an excellent blog that you can access here 

An A-Z of Office Jargon

Apparently – ‘Touch Base” is the most-hated office phrase for a second year in a row.

Certainly – it’s a mainstay of contact requests I get from Linkedin. And if I fail to touch base I usually get someone ‘circling back’ to remind me.

But surely the most in vogue phrase is ‘we’re on a journey’. I was recently at an event where it was used five times – in the first 30 minutes.

None of us are immune to jargon. Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly. Used well, it does.

The danger comes from using it out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

I’m often guilty of this – words around innovation and design can be especially arcane – often dressing up a simple idea.

And it winds people up. A survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation.

So I’ve refreshed my A-Z for 2019, here they are:


Agile

Was once the ‘collaborative effort of self-organising and cross-functional teams’ but now best used in meetings to make yourself sound down with the kids e.g “is this really agile enough?”

Bandwidth

As in “I don’t have the bandwidth for this” – meaning “I don’t have the time for you today sorry”

Circle back

As in “I’m just heading to a very important meeting but we’ll circle-back later”

Deep Dive

As in “We’re going for a deep dive to make sure we utilise all the functionality”

Engage (or Consult/Involve)

See also co-creation, co-design, co-production or co-anything else

Future-proof

An assertion that your latest idea is immune to obsolescence

Going Forward

Meaning “from now on”.  Bonus points for “Go forward together”

Hackathon

Usually a meeting. Just with pizza and t-shirts 

Ideation

A word that “has come under informal criticism as being a term of meaningless jargon” according to Wikipedia

Joined Up

Taking a ‘holistic, helicopter view of the business’

KPI

Key Performance Indicator. Easier if everyone just said ‘target’

Low Hanging Fruit

An open goal. The fruit is hanging right there in front of you – grab it

Mission Statement

A written, but very rarely demonstrated,  ‘reason for being’ in respect of a company and its activities

No ‘I’ in team

Meaning – in case you were in any doubt – that there is no letter I in the word TEAM. Entirely reasonable to hit anyone who says this

Offline (Let’s Take This)

Or even better “let’s ‘touch base’ about that offline”

Pivot

To change your mind after realising that your project is doomed. A useful euphemism for failure

Quick Win

Small steps or initiatives that produce immediate, positive results without any actual evidence

Radical

Use this when you want to make something that’s not remotely exciting sound like it really is 

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Widely used by managers with no idea of how to get everyone in agreement

Touch base

The LinkedIn translation of ‘let’s talk’

User Centricity

Placing your customer at the ‘centre of the service experience and prioritising their needs’ without actually meaning it 

Value Add

Managerial speak for “to make something better”

We’re on a journey

Highlighting that a company, team, project or person will never reach the final mission or objective

Your take

As in I’m keen to hear your take on this as I haven’t got a clue what to say or do

Zero Sum Game

As in “we should never, ever, have started this project in the first place”


You might agree or disagree or want to add more (anyone got an X?)

Let me know!

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