Business bilingualism: Speaking the language of corporate jargon

If you’ve ever felt like your manager is speaking an entirely different language during a team meeting or conference call, you’re not alone. Despite its presence on the tips of countless executives’ tongues, corporate jargon remains very much a mystery to most people. The verbiage is known by many names; “business jargon,” “corporate lingo,” and “management speak,” just to name a few variations, but everyone invariably recognizes corporate jargon when they hear it. 

Of course, recognizing the peculiarity of phrases and words like synergy, low hanging fruit, and brain dump is a far cry from actually understanding what’s being said. A study published in the scientific journal Corporate Communications found that managers who avoid the use of business jargon foster more positivity and trust among their employees. Perhaps even more importantly, that same project noted corporate lingo often led to “misalignments” regarding what employers meant to convey and what their employees perceived. 

If something as basic as internal communications is a challenge for an organization, chances are it isn’t going to be a very successful one. Indeed, corporate lingo was born out of a desire among the top brass of business to better connect with and motivate their workforces, but ironically it’s evolved over the past seven decades or so into a linguistic barrier separating the rungs of countless office hierarchies. When was the last time you heard an entry-level worker talk about streamlining or blue sky thinking?

A comprehensive review of relevant research published in The American Journal of Industrial and Business Management even concludes managers and supervisors should avoid the use of business jargon as much as possible so as to minimize miscommunications and misunderstandings among employees. Paradoxically, however, in many cases modern corporate jargon is used deliberately to deceive or at the very least patronize workers. Announcing a new cost alignment initiative is a lot easier for managers than telling everyone budget cuts are coming.

Akin to throwing a fresh coat of paint on the same old beat up sedan, business jargon is employed by upper and middle management to freshen up or add excitement to ideas, initiatives, and policies that if stated plainly, would inspire little more than a shoulder shrug or roll of the eyes among most employees. 

Want to better understand business buzzwords the next time you find yourself in the boardroom or on a conference call? Here are 10 of the most commonly heard corporate jargon words or phrases. 

  • Deliverable: A task or specific responsibility assigned to a particular employee. In many cases, deliverables come with set deadlines for completion (or delivery).
  • Deep dive: If a worker is asked to perform a deep dive it means they’ve been tasked with conducting a thorough and comprehensive analysis of a provided topic, idea, or strategy.
  • Pain point: Unrelated to physical discomfort, pain points in the business world refer to any issue, problem, or setback that can hinder an organization’s progress toward a goal or profits.
  • Silver bullet: While literal silver bullets may be helpful while hunting monsters, a figurative silver bullet in the corporate sense refers to a simple, easy-to-implement solution to a complex issue or hurdle.
  • Run it up the flagpole: Bringing up a new idea or strategy to team members or senior management for approval or feedback.
  • Bandwidth: In work settings, bandwidth has turned into a synonym for time and availability. A manager may ask if you “have the bandwidth” to take on an extra project or hop on a quick phone call. Conversely, if a co-worker is stressed out and overworked, it’s probably safe to assume they “don’t have the bandwidth” to help you out with a different project.
  • Out of pocket: If you hear a co-worker or executive is going to be out of pocket, don’t expect to see them around for a while. This term means an individual will be unavailable for a certain period of time.
  • Synergy: A favorite among CEOs and CFOs, synergies refer to seamless, successful collaborations across internal departments and teams producing outcomes that would have been impossible alone. 
  • Ninja/guru/rockstar: In pursuit of playfulness, many businesses now swap out the word “expert” for more abstract phrases like ninja or guru. A veteran lawyer may be called a “legal rockstar,” while a highly-skilled SEO specialist could be called a “marketing ninja.”
  • Core competencies: An employee’s primary area of expertise and most refined set of skills.