Leveraging our Core Competencies Or Killing the Buzz(words)
Do you think outside the box? Are you giving 110% in order to move to the next level? Are you effectively synergising your methodology?
We all know that buzzwords are essentially meaningless, but what does that tell us about the people who use them? Well, very little. These words and phrases are merely verbal tics, placeholders in our speech. Using them certainly doesn’t mean that the speaker is less intelligent, less socially aware or less trustworthy. So what does it matter? Why am I writing a long, rambling blog post about them if they don’t mean anything?
Look at it like this: Language is a tool for communication. We use words because they have meanings that we all agree on. A shared language is one of the things that (according to some research) enabled groups of early humans to develop societies, technologies and, eventually, managers and consultants. It is an essential part of who we are. Idioms (words and phrases that have a shared social meaning, often arranged as obscure metaphors) form part of our individual identity, giving us a recognisable and personal ‘voice’. We all have them, these words and phrases that we cling to like old friends (you all cling to your friends, right?) and use without even thinking about them consciously. These are social buzzwords, jargon used to create a sense of shared identity.
“You speak like me, therefore we are the same.”
In my opinion, business buzzwords do not fulfil a similar function. They are usually used only by the layers of management in an organisation, rather than the general workforce. They create a barrier between you and your staff, a lack of shared language. Jargon is exclusive. It caters for a group with specific knowledge and excludes everyone else. Anyone who has been stuck in conversation with bunch of tech experts will understand how quickly you get set adrift in a sea of jargon.
“You do not speak like me, therefore we are different.”
Some of these buzzwords are nonsensical. We all know that ‘giving 110%’ is a physical impossibility and yet we don’t question it. Why? Because we know what is meant by it. We know that it really means ‘work harder’, so why not just say that? Is it because it sounds needlessly judgemental? It implies that one can work harder, that one is not working hard enough. It is supposed to be motivational but often has the opposite effect. If someone is working flat-out, putting in hours of overtime, demanding more work can kill motivation stone dead. So we resort to meaningless clichés.
Let me be clear: English is a living language and, as such, will continue to develop and grow with new words and phrases being coined all the time. The last few decades have seen a massive explosion of neologisms (new words), largely driven by new technology. That is a good thing. Language must evolve in order to remain effective at describing our ever-changing modern world. In the normal course of things, new words will be tested in real situations, surviving or dying based on their usefulness. I don’t think this is happening with business jargon. The artificial atmosphere of the business sector means that new words and phrases are rarely subject to the same scrutiny that they would be in the ‘real’ world. The power structures and hierarchies of business mean that language use is rarely challenged. After all, a data entry clerk is unlikely to question a CEOs use of ‘leverage’ as a verb. It goes way beyond the acceptable social guidelines that businesses operate under.
Isn’t all this just the natural development of our language? Many people know that ‘decimate’, for example, technically means ‘to reduce by one tenth’, but its primary modern usage is ‘to virtually eliminate’. As much as this might annoy pedants like myself, this is the way that language evolves. Words change their meanings over time. But that isn’t what’s happening here. Words and phrases are losing their meanings, becoming verbal tics that are used to pad out our speech. It has, like all forms of jargon, become a code, a tool of obfuscation and misdirection. When a business downsizes in order to focus on their core competencies, we are supposed to believe that they are reducing their staffing levels and going back to doing what they are good at. We don’t, however, believe that for a second. We assume, cynically, that they are firing staff to save money, when the reality is more likely to be that the company is trimming down on unnecessary staff so that they can improve the service they provide. Surely that is a noble goal, even if some employees find themselves out of work as a result, so why not just say it?
Even Forbes.com have blasted buzzwords so I know I’m not alone! The negative reaction to business jargon has been going on for years, but no-one seems to be listening. Why is this? And, more importantly, what is the alternative?
It’s time to stop. We need clarity in business speech. Politicians say a lot without saying anything and they are rightfully pilloried for it. It’s time to start doing the same thing with business jargon. In the 1990s, the UK satirical news show Drop The Dead Donkey featured a character called Gus Hedges who coined a fabulous range of pseudo-business nonsense. He was a figure of mockery for using hundreds of words to say absolutely nothing of worth. Some of his gems include:
“There’s just something I’d like to pop into your percolator, see if it comes out brown.”
“Today is tomorrow’s tadpole of opportunity.”
“Problems are just the pregnant mothers of solutions.”
“In this fast changing world you have to have tomorrow’s technology today, because today is tomorrow’s yesterday, and yesterday is a bad place to live.”
Gus was an obviously exaggerated proxy for the sort of corporate wunderkind that post-Thatcher businesses specialised in, but have we really moved on in the intervening two decades? Would the business world be damaged if a CEO felt comfortable just saying “We have to lay off a lot of people because we can’t afford to carry on like this”? In my (humble-ish) opinion, this would be far better. Honesty is a good thing, isn’t it? We tend to trust people who are plain-speaking and honest. Isn’t honesty better than spouting some clichéd soundbites that, in reality, say nothing? That must be better for business.
Oh well, I’m off to ride the bleeding edge of consumer-end technologies and become the best-in-show and premier passionista at leveraging the available resources to create a roadmap for future developmentation.
Yeah, I’ll be playing Minecraft…