In the Tower of Babel myth, people were condemned to speak different languages so that they could not understand one another.  Anyone flicking through the management section of an airport bookshop, paying homage at a conference to the latest management gurus or even perusing their corporate newsletter will probably empathise with those unfortunate souls in Babel. 

We are encouraged to lean-in, unpack, swarm a problem, pivot, disestablish, re-imagine, circle back, think blue sky, deep dive and that’s without the adoption of the Toyota lexicon (think Kanban, Poke-Yoke, Heijunka, Kaizen).   The jargon is bad enough but it’s usually wrapped-up in mangled, grammatically incorrect drivel with tortured prose padding out the rest of the book/speech/newsletter.  

So What?

In most cases it is completely unnecessary.  Very, very few ideas, inventions or innovations are so novel that we need to create a new word to describe it or “re-purpose” an existing one. English is a wonderfully rich and flexible language, more than capable of adequately and elegantly conveying the message of the author/speaker. 

Most of the discussion on this topic has centred on staff morale and how annoying staff find it.  Listening to a leader trying to set a new direction and instil a sense of urgency by peppering their speech with buzzwords is irritating and challenges the credibility of the leader in the eyes of the audience. Most people switch-off. For others, trying to focus and keep a straight face, when all around colleagues are rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, suppressing disdain or stifling a yawn can be an enjoyable spectator sport – I doubt it was the intended motivational device but schadenfreude can lift the spirits. 

For me, the real problem with management gibberish is the more direct impact it has on team productivity: the team have no idea what they are being asked to do, nor how to do it. Anyone who has attempted to learn a new language – especially later in life – will know just how difficult it is to try and understand what is being said in another tongue. Spending even half a day, immersed in a foreign language is physically draining, especially given the focus and concentration required to stay present and connected to the conversation. With so many of us now working in a way that requires communication across both geographic and cultural boundaries, clarity of communication is more important than ever. Imposing the latest jargon on an audience tends to leave even native English speakers mildly bemused and confused; those with English as a second language, completely bamboozled. 

If your business is selling ideas, be that as an author, consultant, commentator, mentor or coach, then I understand the need to set yourself apart in a crowded market place. Coining a new phrase or term is a good way to do that, but in the vast majority of cases, I would suggest the witch doctors would enjoy far more professional success if their audience was able to understand them.

What’s The Impact?

Listening to teams in remote locations, desperate to prove that they are connected to the parent organisation by chanting in unison the management babble of the day, many visiting managers leave believing that everyone is ‘on the same page’ and ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. But if you ask the teams to explain the jargon and how they apply the particular technique or practice, the chances are, at best, you will see blank faces, at worst, confused and embarrassed ones. 

The impact on productivity is extraordinary.  Teams will expend effort on capturing data, creating reports, meeting to discuss them and identifying action items based on their interpretation. If they fundamentally do not understand what the technique is, or how and why it should be applied, the best result is just a monumental waste of effort. Unfortunately, however, in many cases this lack of understanding can lead to teams choosing the wrong course of action. 

What To Do?

Plain and simple – use language that is common to your organisation and culture.  The reason that the Toyota lexicon works for Toyota is that it is standard across all of their facilities and everyone understands what “Jidoka” means.  So when a new technique looks like it may help your organisation – and every organisation needs to continue to improve and innovate – think very carefully about:

Build in lots of question and answer opportunities, to check the understanding of your team before rolling it out across the organisation.

For those interested in the topic check out André Spicer’s recent Guardian article.

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