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.

Where Did Our Commute Time Go?

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has ushered in a new era of remote work but either way a lot of workers have saved a lot of time this year. So you’d think we’d have put it to good use.

Have we?

Pre pandemic, commuting was the bane of many peoples lives. The housing crisis and a lack of spending on infrastructure has led to longer, more onerous, commutes for many workers. The number of people spending more than two hours travelling to and from work every day jumped by 72% over the past decade to more than 3 million. The number of people spending 3 hours or more increased by 75% – with women being disproportionately affected.

A 2006 study from Daniel Kahneman found that respondents ranked commuting as the least enjoyable activity of the day, with a large body of research linking it to marital breakdown, depression and all manner of physical and emotional impacts. Indeed, a 20 minute increase in commute has been likened to getting a 20% pay cut.

The Nine To Five plus a growing commute also locked us into a very rigid formula where we even had to compromise our natural sleeping requirements – ruinous for mental and physical wellbeing. We all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day. This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our productivity.

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has truly ushered in a new era of remote work, or perhaps the shift is merely illusory , but either way many of us have saved a lot of time this year. So you’d think we’d have put it to good use.

You’d think.

In my highly unscientific Twitter poll, nearly 40% of people say they are just working more. The removal of the natural break of a commute has just extended the work day for many, with it now becoming culturally acceptable to host meetings before breakfast or after dinner. Some people say they are actually making or eating meals – during meetings.

Working through these new social etiquettes, how to be effectively heard, how to ensure we stay on top of the meeting, how to speak up without being rude, is exhausting. Combine that with making the kids breakfast and you’re heading for a crisis.

However some people are loving their new found freedom:

So what explains the different choices people are making? A more scientific study from the US indicates they might not even be choices.

The research found that different types of workers used their time savings very differently. Independent employees (i.e. those without managerial responsibilities) reallocated much of it to personal activities like hobbies, exercise, sleeping, whereas managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings.

Importantly , for managers, the increase in work hours more than offset the loss in commuting time. They not only used the previously allocated commute time for working – they added extra time to it.

Let’s remember the virality of meetings is not a new finding. In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Microsoft Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.

Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat. It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:

  • The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
  • 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
  • The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
  • 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings

The findings showed that, unchecked, meetings spread. And it seems that this pandemic has acted as a kind of super-spreader for even more meetings.

Of course, it is possible that many of us are exaggerating the hours we are putting in. There is evidence emerging of blurring, the distinction between work and non-work disappearing so it appears you are at work longer than you actually are. We pad the work day out with household chores, exercise or even entertainment. The Harvard study found that often there was no increase in total time spent working, but an increase in work-day spans.

However, the enlightened (or lucky) ones are embracing the new world of work to explore new hobbies, do more exercise, and spend time with their family. Or doing the one thing pretty much guaranteed to make your life all together better: getting more sleep.

So, some of us are thriving and some of us flailing. The irony is that the ones flailing appear to be those with the power to change things. The managers: the people who set the work day rules for everyone else. We can change this if we truly want to. If we really care about people’s wellbeing we can stop this now.

Covid, clearly, doesn’t kill meetings. But we can.


Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

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