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How Corporate Speak Can Hurt Your Career

"The Snoozy Lunch & Learn"

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The Navigator has a sneaking suspicion that today’s organizations are filled with humans that have turned into robots.  He does not refer to humans being replaced by robots, but humans turning into robots as exhibited by their lack of curiosity – a condition where employees respond to small immediate stimuli throughout their day without obtaining the big picture.  There are several contributing factors to this devolution of the human condition but none is as mechanizing as the internal language used in corporations known as Corporate Speak or CS.  If you find yourself growing drowsy from the soothing concoctions of CS that you are offered in corporate communications, team meetings, and performance reviews, you had better snap out of it.  CS can hinder your career advancement if you don’t know how and when to ask for clarity. 

The Origins of Corporate Speak

In an effort to soften the impact of accelerated change on employees, change management experts have provided leaders with words and phrases that sedate. Facing huge layoffs?  No problem. You are simply experiencing a reduction in force.  Anticipating redundancy after a merger?  Just call it “synergy” and talk about “a new streamlined direction”.  Reducing benefits?  Offer a new healthcare plan with a flexible menu of options.  These contrivances can be very effective.  A global insurer behemoth during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown made extensive use of change management “positioning statements” to reduce their employee base from 116,000 to 56,400 by 2016.  During that multi-year operation, soothing words and phrases were devised by consultants and human resource professionals to sweeten the bitter taste of the new ultra-stringent performance reviews that justified massive layoffs and the downgrading of all job functions.  Thousands of organizations have used CS effectively to their advantage when faced with profound impending change.  But it hasn’t stopped there.

Like a biological weapon used recklessly, the contagion of CS has spread to all aspects of organizational communication harming the very institutions that they were designed to protect.  Business meetings have become full of words sanitized of their urgency.  Organizations no longer have “problems”, they have “challenges”.  Gone too are “deficiencies” which have been replaced with “opportunities for growth”.  These vagaries do not convey the true intent of the speaker or their consequences.  The corporate jargon creates an environment of ambiguity that dulls the senses like a slow drip of morphine.  As a result, employees focus on immediate tasks and no longer question contradictions or redundant initiatives.  Curiosity and innovation have been dulled, as well as the drive to create solutions of enduring value.   The aggregate of robot behavior degrades the entire output of the organization.  There is grave risk to your career trajectory as well.  Corporate Speak has eroded the most important tool of career advancement:  performance feedback.

The Use of Corporate Speak in Performance Feedback

As an employee you rely on your manager’s feedback to help you gauge if you are effective in the workplace.  Useful feedback alerts you to the things you are doing well, what you need to do more and less of.  It conveys measurable expectations, rewards, and consequences.  When managers fulfill their obligation in this way they are acting as a catalyst in your career advancement.  But in recent years managers have developed an aversion to providing negative feedback due to the fear of offending or demotivating employees.  Even explicit positive feedback is avoided because a manager may feel that you will expect a promotion when there are no promotional slots to be had.  As an alternative, managers have adopted CS nomenclature which mercifully obfuscates anything that could cause an undesired reaction.  Without candid feedback, you are in the dark about your true prospects.

You may be so used to receiving CS feedback that you are not sure how to identify it.  If so, you will want to compare the impact of a manager’s words in both Corporate Speak and plain English in the example below:

Corporate Speak – “It’s been a really hard year for everyone given all the changes going on and it’s great that the team is hanging in there. I have some constructive feedback for you which represents an opportunity for growth.  Given the challenges you are undertaking in your projects, I would like you to enhance the way you do your projects. You might want to consider a refresh.  Depending on how the rest of the year goes, we may consider some organizational layering which could help realign our resources”.

Huh?

Plain English – “Your performance this year has been a mixed bag.   There are some things that you need to change quickly because the matter is urgent.  You were asked to solve a big business problem this year so the success of your projects is critical.  You have been missing deadlines so you will want to adopt a different approach to completing your projects.  If you can manage to turn this around on your own, we can avoid my changing the reporting structure where you will be managed by one of your peers.”

Which feedback style have you been receiving from your manager?  If it is the former you might be snoozing your way into oblivion. The Navigator urges you to wake up and leverage CS feedback to your advantage by probing for clarity.  To do that, you will need to explore various ways to get explicit feedback from your boss and internal clients..

Reading the System and its Unwritten Rules   

The ritual of the annual performance review is the least reliable way to obtain genuine feedback.  Chances are your manager won’t even remember all that you have done (or didn’t do) in the past year given all of their other responsibilities. Instead, you want to encourage ongoing feedback throughout the year, especially after you did something.  Did you just present a plan to senior management?  Ask your boss: “Do you feel I persuaded the group?  What specifically about my presentation makes you feel this way?”.   Did you just launch the first phase of your project plan?  Ask: “What are your impressions so far?  What measurable result would you like to see before we go to the next phase?”.  Have you just provided some just-in-time triage in an emergency?  Tell your boss about the steps that you took and ask her how she viewed your contribution.  Make it easier for your boss to provide constructive feedback. Don’t be defensive which is the root cause of a manager’s reliance on CS to avoid hurt feelings.  Thank her and ask how you could improve.   Your primary aim in obtaining candid performance feedback is to uncover your career hindrances and hidden strengths for future roles here or elsewhere.

While it’s true that your current workplace is likely sedated from CS, you can do your part to make communication more genuine.  Mine for clarity in conversations with managers, peers, and clients.  Reintroduce words that convey truer meaning when participating in meetings or giving presentations.   Of course, you will need to be patient as CS isn’t going away any time soon.  When presenting a slideshow at a team meeting, you will likely have a chorus of team members telling you to change the word “problem” to “challenge”.  Ah well.

the NavigatorHow Corporate Speak Can Hurt Your Career
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Shalom Orlian
Shalom Orlian

I thinks this happens way too much in organizations! It has seeped through to when people are having personal non-work related conversations.
Overheard in the workplace between two colleagues sitting next to each other: “Let’s connect off line”. This is when they were discussing which place to go for happy hour.

R.s.
R.s.

Really enjoyed this article! I was just reading a piece on the pitfalls of being “too nice” as a manager and this article is a great highlight why- often times, use of CS can hurt employees as they aren’t given honest feedback and are likely unaware of the actual message. I love the takeaway of providing in the moment feedback as well!

Plain English Team Player
Plain English Team Player

Navigator, curious what advice you have to both connect with peers, speak their language (see transformation, disruption, innovation) while not succumbing to the CS drip?

Rabbi David Edleson
Rabbi David Edleson

We live in a time of focus-group speech and litigious fear of saying the wrong thing. This has been debilitating in that it gets in the way of genuine, honest relationships with the people we spend most of our waking hours with. Worse than that, it often results in the person receiving the feedback not being at all clear on what was meant in terms of specific action-steps. Finally, CS reflects an underlying dogma that underlies the language, and in any dynamic business, for-profit or non-profit, dogma directly works against dynamic and adaptable leadership.

Noah S.
Noah S.

I find that corporate speak can alienate people who don’t work directly in the field but might be a good future partner. I recently had a conversation with former colleagues who work in a similar but different sphere of our work and midway through our conversation one of them made a joke about all the corporate speak I was using and it sidetracked the whole conversation.

Wish I would have seen this before that conversation!

C. McQueen
C. McQueen

This was a great read. Thank you for your insights.

J Seidel
J Seidel

Question on the opposite of CS: How should one approach an executive who is too casual or tends to cuss in meetings? When introduced to the company, this person brought up their tendency to be direct and occasionally cuss. In practice, it tends to stop the conversation and disrupt the flow of the meeting. Sometimes, the mood of the entire room shifts and becomes very tense, even if it was a casual comment or in jest. Any advice on how to approach a manager with this tendency? Thanks!

Anna Caulfield
Anna Caulfield

Some people even bring corporate speak home. If your spouse seems puzzled by what you are saying, you might consider that you have done this, too.

Charlie D.
Charlie D.

As a manager, when I provide constructive feedback, I sometimes get the impression that it hurts direct reports’ feelings. Any suggestions for how to overcome this challenge?

K Pearce
K Pearce

I agree with this article, CS can be a major annoyance. Having worked in private companies, civil service and a non-profit, each has their own vocabulary which has to be learned. Sedative language always comes across as both patronising and deceitful, in my opinion. Any experienced employee will see straight through it. I also think there is a danger of using constant CS cliches leads employees to switch off when listening to presentations or reading reports. When a “challenge” really is a problem, action is required not sedation!

Looking to improve
Looking to improve

I’m concerned that my manager’s recent feedback about my performance is all corporate speak and generally insincere. Is it wise to ask my peers or other supervisors for feedback?

M. Farnsworth
M. Farnsworth

I never realize how much I may sound like I speak CS. I think I may hide behind it CS because it is hard to tell another hard news or give difficult feedback. When you say it “politely” with CS I think I’m protecting others and I suppose I’m trying to protect myself. It feels a bit scary to try to talk in Plain English about hard subjects. Will I have the guts to do it? Navigator any advice on how to get more brave and say it plain?