Business jargon is actually damaging your business
Progressively innovating emerging markets. Integrating disintegrative experiences by strategizing with some “out of the box” thinking. Let’s find the pain points, do some solutions, circle back, and I’ll ping you in the A.M. Sound familiar?
The Harvard Business Review calls it “bullshit.” Buzzwords, jargon, meta-linguistics, whatever you choose to label it as – we’re all tired of hearing it. A 2017 study from American Express Open states that a whopping 88 percent of people just pretend to understand it. It’s turned into such a nuisance that it might be hindering the very thing we believe that it fosters: productivity.
A study at MIT stated that employees feel their work is most meaningful when it’s both personal and transcendent. But a groundbreaking study in 1998 stated that people are, in fact, not happiest when they achieve goals, especially lifelong ones. It can leave one feeling empty in a phenomenon called the arrival fallacy, where one maintains the illusion that once one’s goal is reached, they’ll be able to “reach lasting happiness.”
So how does one feel like they’re doing something meaningful without accomplishing anything?
The answer is with language.
Business jargon, though a long-standing tradition in many corporate environments, has gone from a trendy way to connect management to their employees, to a replacement for company culture. Almost everyone uses business jargon – sometimes, to a distracting extent. However, the idea that business lingo serves as a necessity should be deconstructed, and deeper psychological aspects explored.
What is it?
The world of business jargon has a long and storied history, as illustrated by an article in Inquiries Journal published in 2017. For all intents and purposes, business jargon is meant to encompass “a new way of framing an issue.”
This functions on a number of levels. Firstly, in order to catch on, “neither the phrase nor the meaning it captures is particularly complex” – they are normally simply an “extension of existing, familiar impressions.” Next, the phrase must have some level of emotional content, or a pithy, “mellifluous sound” that “captures much of the same emotion” as previous words that have similar meanings.
The last component of the business buzzword is that it must have validity that is “reinforced through contextual cues and treatment of the phrase.” While this is a foundational point of any turn of phrase in linguistic theory, business jargon differs in that the terms are defined not by their meaning, as they have no meaning until meaning is prescribed by the inventor of the buzzword.
How it started
The Atlantic argues that the origin of “business-speak” began as early as the 1950s, a reaction to the notion that workers were seen as indolent rather than self-starting. Varying psychologists at schools like Carnegie Mellon and books like The Human Side of Enterprise sought to inform business owners, who they assumed knew very little about the psychology of the worker, about motivating their workforce.
In the 1970s and 1980s, large companies began co-opting this research, namely Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric. Welch’s Work-Out program, which instituted jargon as a formative feature of company culture, ironically to “bureaucracy-busting productivity initiative.” This began a trend of leadership development programs in large corporations to increase employee connectivity and, consequently, productivity.
Though the method of coining terminology for specific companies wasn’t a surefire hit everywhere, the popularity of this phenomenon continued to grow into the modern age. Varying institutions, such as financiers, marketers, HR and healthcare all began to develop their own private jargon, which has persevered to this day.
Why it’s used
As to why these tactics are used, it can be hard to pinpoint directly. In fact, a pamphlet written by the CIA distributed to Allied sympathizers in WWII in 1944 states illustrates that some of the most lucrative ways to sabotage productivity are to “haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions”, or to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length.”
If these tactics are so effective that the government recommended them to what were essentially spies, why do we find ourselves caught in this productivity trap to this day?
This incredibly comprehensive article about business jargon from Medium postulates that business jargon can “run counter to our cognitive fluency… how easily we can understand things.” An old saying in the business world is that if you ever stop feeling dumb at your job, it’s time to get a new job. However, the concept of using many words to describe something simple could make anyone feel dumb – a catch-22.
Business jargon presents a loophole. If the descriptors of your job is so complicated that it never ceases to feel difficult, you’ll always feel challenged by a challenge that isn’t even there – but at least you’ll feel good about yourself in the process.
How to change
If one feels like they’re saying the right things, it can hinder the urge to truly do the right things, as evident in cultural sensations like slacktivism. It’s theorized that by using active words, it seems like problems are being solved without actually enacting any tangible change.
This is more prevalent than ever in the age of COVID. Many of us aren’t acting out some of the more so-called performative aspects of working, such as going to an office, putting on “work clothes” or even the routine of a commute. As a result, we seek to find a way to overcompensate for the lack of work we feel we’re doing, and oftentimes, that can come out in the language we use to discuss our work.
Changing this unfortunate habit might be as easy as integrating a touch of introspection into one’s work day. If you’re sending an email and notice there’s a lot of words and not a lot of content, ask yourself: what am I really saying?
And if you’re in a meeting, and a similar pattern emerges, ask yourself: what are we really talking about? Will this topic bring us closer to completing the project, or are we using this time to just feel good about how hard we feel like we’re working?
Redirecting the conversation or asking for clarification isn’t a cardinal sin of business, and in fact, your coworkers and boss might appreciate you cutting through what the Harvard Business Review calls “bullshit.”