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The truth behind the company jargon

Laura Johnson

Does office jargon hide the truth and is ‘simplification’ just a nice way of saying downsizing? Laura Johnson discusses in her latest blog

I feel I should start with the following disclaimer: this blog contains corporate jargon. I say this because I detest it and I know others do too. Not just because it’s ridiculously clichéd but also because it’s so annoyingly infectious. Which brings me to my second point – a confession to being a complete hypocrite. I’m going to talk about how meaningless and vapid office speak is, yet I can't seem to resist using it myself. Yes, I’m guilty of ‘pinging off’ emails on a daily basis and only a few hours ago I arranged to ‘touch base’ with a client in a few days time. 

I’m a writer, how could I let this sloppy language infiltrate my vocabulary? I guess in the same way as everyone else. It started with saying things like “blue sky thinking” and “taking it offline” sarcastically to raise a wry smile from colleagues during dull meetings. But then gradually it became a habit and the ironic tone got lost. That’s the problem with corporate jargon; it’s contagious and we all absorb and accept the uninspiring gobbledygook in the end. 

The dictionary of corporate-ese is ever-expanding, with fresh empty phrases infiltrating boardrooms all the time. The recession hasn’t helped. If there’s anything the stubbornly faltering economy has driven us to do it’s to develop muddied and meaningless phrases that essentially mean cutting jobs. My least favourite of these buzzwords is ‘simplification’ and the bad news is this term has gone viral. 

Overused and abused in offices across the country, simplification is making its bid to join the corporate buzzword hall of fame. And it made great strides last week clocking up several appearances in Barclays’ controversial Group Strategy Update. “Barclays will be repositioned, simplified and rebalanced to improve returns,” the bank says in the opening section of the statement. “This is a bold simplification of Barclays,” Antony Jenkins, chief executive goes on to declare. The reality is of course, 19,000 jobs are on the line, mainly due to it slashing headcount in its investment division. But using the notion of simplification makes it sounds so much more acceptable, right?

It’s baffling, frustrating and cringe-worthy but business lingo serves a purpose. In Barclay’s case it softens a difficult truth and legitimises a difficult decision to downsize its teams. Simplicity sounds harmless, practical and well, irrefutably straightforward. Vaguer than ‘consolidation’ and less intimidating than ‘streamlining’, simplicity has booted these other buzzwords to one side with its ability to mask the true meaning of what’s being said whilst at the same time sounding absolutely essential. It’s management speak perfection and we're all falling head of heels for the charms of this newcomer to our work vocabulary. In fact it’s so appealing that a new report from Source (a provider of research about the management consulting market) predicts global organisations will be spending around $4.2 billion on simplification themed initiatives by 2017. Yes, it’s that powerful. 

Where did this obsession with simplification come from? I’m guessing from where most annoying corporate lingo originates – management consultants. It’s widely accused that consultants feel they need their own language to get a point across and add an aura of science or authority to their waffle. But who really trusts a consultant? They arrive in your office and spark immediate panic as they purposefully hunt down any hint of inefficiency (or at least uncover enough evidence to create a compelling illusion of ineffectiveness). This unavoidably sparks job losses and those lucky enough to keep their positions are tasked with making up the difference now they are several colleagues down. This may not be a fair or accurate reflection of consultancy at its finest but it’s a popular stereotype nonetheless.

So why do we adopt the terminology of a profession we inherently distrust? Because it’s an easier pill to swallow than speaking the truth. Leaders have hearts after all and sugar-coating difficult decisions with these phrases is kinder on our consciences. Unfortunately most people aren't fooled. Utter the word simplicity in an office environment and you’ll be met with stony silence. You may as well say, “we’re cost-cutting and there’s going to be job losses as a result.” The truth is vague language erodes employee trust. And that’s something no business can really afford to lose? 

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