Corporate jargon is used by many companies across the globe. Many of these companies even have their go-to cliché phrases – e.g., think outside the box, let’s hit the ground running, or move the needle.
But what do these phrases really mean? More importantly, how do these phrases impact communication in the workplace?
James Sudakow, the owner of CH Consulting, a boutique management and organizational effectiveness firm, and author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit…and Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, joins us to discuss why eliminating corporate jargon is the key to improving workplace communication.
Why is using corporate jargon an issue?
There are two main reasons.
First, there are a good number of people who actually don’t know what the jargon means. On the surface, this may seem hard to believe given how much exposure most of us have to jargon and buzzwords on an almost every day basis at work.
Even with that, many people still don’t know what many of the buzzwords mean, but they feel as though they should because everyone else seems to know. Many of them just stay quiet and try to figure it out, especially those who are earlier in their careers and who might be less confident about what they are supposed to know and what is okay not to know. The impact of this is that it simply represents another hurdle to have to work through to get good work done effectively and efficiently.
Second, credibility and influence are often impacted by overuse of jargon or buzzwords – in particular for leaders. Interestingly, some research has shown that one of the most important factors in anyone’s ability to influence is finding common ground. This is particularly important for leaders as there is already a big separation on a lot of fronts between the leader and team members.
Leaders often work hard to try to find common ground with their employees because it makes them more relatable. Jargon gets in the way of that relatability, especially of the jargon feels “high-brow.” Speaking in common English helps leaders be more relatable to anyone at any level.
Is there a job function or vertical industry that is particularly prone to using jargon?
Interestingly, every function or industry has its own unique jargon. If you aren’t part of that industry or function, you might have no idea what the buzzwords or acronyms mean.
Technical functions certainly have their own brand of jargon as well, which often confounds less technical people even more who are already intimidated by the technology. Even with these industries or function-specific jargon, there is also a broad set of jargon that seems to be used by everyone.
What are some examples of the most common phrases used across all industries to avoid?
One of the most common jargon phrases used these days is “paradigm shift.”
Interestingly, the concept of the paradigm shift is often legitimate, but most people don’t generally talk about paradigm shifts to the extent that the buzzword is used. As with many buzzwords, it is the overuse that makes it problematic.
The concept of the company “ecosystem” is also an en-vogue buzzword these days. If you ask a lot of people to really tell you what this means, you’ll get a lot of different answers mixed with blank stares. So it is better just to avoid it completely.
What should be used to replace these phrases for better communication?
As a general rule, I always like to think about how I might talk about a business issue with a friend who didn’t work in the business world and knew nothing of paradigm shifts, ecosystems, or the sexy projects we do in the business world.
For paradigm shifts, replace that with something like, “a completely different view or mindset.” And for company ecosystem, we can substitute more basic language that simply talks about “the company structure or interconnected systems.”
Lastly, for something as ridiculous as calling a business project a “sexy project,” we might want just to avoid that entirely.
How does collaboration technology impact the way these phrases are being communicated to teams across the globe?
Collaboration technology makes it easy to work together across geographies. There is such a great benefit to that. However, because of that and the way that business is so much more global than it has ever been, it is becoming even more important to cut the jargon.
As nuanced as jargon may be to a particular industry or function, some jargon makes absolutely no sense (beyond is already being nonsensical) to different regions of the world within whom we may be better equipped to work with based on great collaboration technology.
What’s an example of a company that eliminated some of the phrases cited earlier? What transformational results did they witness?
I worked with a medical device company who did a great job as a leadership team of speaking in plain language. The COO, who was very seasoned and an incredibly intelligent leader, was probably the poster child for the change. He would lead global town hall meetings that were conducted live via collaboration technology all around the world, and he would simply talk about the goals of the company in plain language.
He was well known for keeping it simple but not dumbing it down. He would say things like, “Our job is to make the best product we can. Then we need to sell it. And then we need to keep it working through great servicing.”
Ironically, the company was in a transformation period where the technology needed to evolve to new platforms, but no one heard him talk about paradigm shifts, economies of scale, or ecosystems.
As a result, he was one of the most respected leaders in the company and was able to really push the transformation hard, but in a way that people supported. He was speaking the language everyone spoke, which made employees want to make the transformation happen instead of simply complying with it.