Post sponsored by Rivier University
By Brian Neese
“Transformation,” “disruption,” and “millennials” topped a 2015 survey of business jargon terms that workers are sick of hearing. Unfortunately, these are just the latest entries in corporate speak, joining “low-hanging fruit,” “touch base,” “bandwidth,” and “innovation.” Business jargon, or specialized language used in the industry, has a long history and is universally disliked.
Business jargon does more than annoy workers. It also obstructs communication, undermines productivity, and contributes to high employee turnover.
The history of business jargon
Prior to the Great Depression, businesses in the United States were primarily concerned with efficiency, and corporate culture followed suit: “The words used to talk about workers in books and boardrooms were accordingly mechanistic, emphasizing accuracy, precision, incentives, and maximized production,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic.
But a shift occurred in the 1930s. Researchers started focusing on human relations, and managers who didn’t understand the psychology of workers—who treated them as machines—were ineffective supervisors, resulting in increased tensions between labor and management. The timing of the Great Depression exacerbated these tensions, and this time period saw many companies not being able to meet workers’ psychological and social needs.
In the aftermath of World War II, American companies began to change. Most large organizations became diversified conglomerates as a result of mergers and acquisitions that took place in the 1950s and ’60s. As a result, it was more difficult for workers to feel connected to their companies. Also, during this time, organizational science wasn’t relegated to researchers; companies also began to take an interest in how to help employees become more productive and feel better connected.
Business leaders asked how they could get workers to feel differently about their jobs. Green notes that it was also about money: “As a manager, how can I maximize profits by creating a certain emotional atmosphere at my company?”
As a result of these questions and increased competition, business jargon began to emerge. “Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable; it gives an air of novelty and specious profundity to ideas that, if stated directly, would seem superficial, stale, frivolous, or false,” writes poet and critic David Lehman in his 1991 book, Signs of the Times. “The line between serious and spurious scholarship is an easy one to blur, with jargon on your side.”
The evolution of business jargon
It didn’t take long for researchers and business leaders to develop theories that led to the proliferation of business jargon in the workplace.
- MIT professors Douglas McGregor, Edgar Schein, and Richard Beckhard created the field of organizational development in the 1950s and ’60s. An early example of business jargon, “paradigm shift,” appeared in Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
- In the 1980s, Peter Drucker worked with General Electric to develop the Work-Out program to help managers and employees solve problems faster. He identified “low-hanging fruit” as problems that were easy to solve, “rattlers” as obvious problems, and “pythons” as challenging problems stemming from bloated bureaucracy.
- During the same time, consultant Charles Krone developed a $40 million training program to help with communication at Pacific Bell. The program included terms like “task cycle” and “functioning capabilities.” It was met with widespread discontent.
- Other consultants propelled a wide range of unclear language, such as “streamline,” “restructure,” “let go,” “create operational efficiencies,” “boil the ocean,” and “sync up.”
By the turn of the 21st century, different industries had their own versions of corporate speak. For instance, finance had terms like “leverage” and “standard deviations.” Marketing brought “thought leader” and “run it up the flagpole.” Technology developed “bandwidth” and “disrupt.”
The impact of business jargon
In her article for the Business Strategy Series, Karen Friedman argues that jargon-free communication helps avoid misunderstandings and facilitates the timely exchange of information. Eliminating jargon helps managers and employees communicate effectively and efficiently.