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”.
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.