Bad Language in the Workplace

Bad Language in the Workplace

Watch your Language!


Have you ever found yourself moving the goalposts in an attempt to leverage some low-hanging fruit?


No?  


Good, as it is utter gibberish.


I taught English in some of the biggest companies in Europe and in that time something struck me as odd. An unusual amount of class time was being spent helping very proficient English speakers decipher the language of their native speaking colleagues, especially those in the US, the UK, and Ireland. 


I had to put together a lesson on business verbiage, and spent many an enjoyable afternoon laughing with students about ‘pain points’, ‘paradigm shifts’, ‘herding cats’ and ‘drinking from the hosepipe’.  


“Why do English speakers speak like this?” one HR manager asked me as he scanned the list of expressions and translations.


“We don’t,” I replied, before reconsidering. “ Well some people do, but only at work, and only in some situations.”


Over the past two decades, a distinct shift has taken place — the rise of confusing corporate jargon


This bewildering web of buzzwords and acronyms has infiltrated business conversations, presentations, and even external communications. 

This trend, known as "corporate speak," has led to a growing disconnect between what is said and what is truly understood. 


The consequence: an environment where clarity is sacrificed for the allure of appearing informed.


The impact of corporate jargon reaches far beyond mere semantics. Its prevalence poses significant challenges to collaboration, innovation, and trust within organisations. As employees struggle to understand the meaning behind hollow phrases, their engagement and morale suffer. 


Additionally, the excessive use of jargon can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations, causing errors that could have been easily avoided. This is compounded as a lot of jargon and acronyms are company specific and only make sense within the organisation. 


This means that new hires, temps, consultants, and external stakeholders will likely be unacquainted with in-house acronyms, or worse, they might assume OSP is your ‘outsource service provider’ as opposed to your ‘official selling price’ or ‘onsite safety permit’.


A study conducted by the Corporate Executive Board found that among employees who find their company's communication unclear, 81% feel less engaged, leading to decreased productivity and job satisfaction. Furthermore, a Deloitte survey revealed that 64% of professionals consider corporate jargon a barrier to effective leadership.


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When you are both knowledgeable and professional, you should endeavour to speak as naturally as possible in the workplace. 


Imagine you sit down to dinner with your partner at the end of a long week. The wine has been poured, candle flames are swaying merrily, and for the first few minutes you both eat in companionable silence. 


Your partner smiles across at you and asks you how your week went. You reply….


“Thanks for asking, love! 

I had to pivot my approach on that project we've been tackling to ensure this quarter's OKRs are realised. The team and I had this seamless transition from ideation to execution, and honestly, the synergy was palpable. We were firing on all cylinders, optimising resources, and achieving alignment with the overarching strategy .

On Wednesday, we had this productive brainstorming session that yielded some groundbreaking insights. It was all about pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, and leveraging our core competencies to disrupt the market. Through blue sky thinking we identified some low-hanging fruit opportunities that we can capitalise on, and the potential impact should help brace us against the current macroeconomic headwinds.

On Thursday afternoon, I had a meeting with stakeholders, where we discussed our roadmap for the upcoming quarter. I showcased our KPIs and how we're tracking against our targets. The feedback loop was essential, a total win-win, and I could see the light bulbs going off as we synergized our efforts to ensure our initiatives are customer-centric, streamlined, and aligned. We still have to get a few ducks in a row, but we are going to circle back on a few things in our meeting next Thursday.

At this point your partner's eyes have either glazed over completely or they are so eager to understand you that they have frozen, their CPUs paralysed in the attempt to decipher such an avalanche of jargon. 

Now imagine how your colleagues feel when you choose to speak this way at work?

I’ll give you a clue; it is the opposite of engaged.



The Solution



When addressing your staff/ team, the goal is to convey your message in a way that can be understood by your employees. I’m fully aware of the allure of drifting into pseudo-comprehensible business terminology and acronyms, especially when answering questions on the fly.  


Be wary, if you are veering into incoherence, remember that you are not the font of all worldly knowledge. If you cannot provide a clear and concise answer, it is generally reasonable to say the three words that have unfathomably become taboo in the corporate world : I DON’T KNOW (but will find out and get back to you on Monday). 



The Strategic Use of Corporate Speak



I believe the prevalence of confusing terminology is mostly unintentional; a habit learned over time from our own mentors in the office whose mannerisms and language we tend to mimic overtime (see my article on mimicry).


That being said, leaders have also harnessed corporate speak intentionally to present a facade of complexity and depth. 


By cloaking messages in layers of convoluted language, some leaders create an aura of authority and expertise. 


This phenomenon, often referred to as "obfuscation through verbosity," (the irony 🙂) allows certain leaders to distance themselves from straightforward communication, subtly implying an intellectual superiority that might not necessarily reflect reality. 


In doing so, they create a power dynamic that sets them apart from their peers and subordinates, leaving others to decipher their statements in awe or confusion. Another little perk is that when your message is deliberately wordy and confusing, it reduces the likelihood that anyone will have managed to translate it in time to ask a pertinent question. 


A good rule of thumb is, if something seems deliberately wordy and rambling: question it.


In the past I have struggled with having the courage to ask superiors to pause and rephrase what they have just said. It takes gumption to admit that you are unsure or confused, but don’t discount the possibility that everyone else in the meeting might be feeling the same way. 


This deliberate use of corporate speak serves both as a barrier to clear communication and a tool for leaders to assert control over information dissemination. 


Politicians have mastered art of saying a lot while revealing nothing (and they are quite literally the least trusted professionals on earth). If we continue to lean in this direction in organisations, I can see no other outcome other than the erosion of integrity.



The good news is that everyone in the business world has the power to change the way they communicate with their colleagues, and we can start now. 


Simplifying communication does not mean sacrificing professionalism; rather, it is a commitment to fostering genuine understanding and engagement. 


We have the power to inspire, motivate and build lasting relationships by ensuring we make an effort to speak sincerely and organically at work.


So next time you find yourself touching base with a ninja colleague who engaged in a new deep dive he did not have the bandwidth for, ask yourself:


Is it necessary to speak like The Riddler while at work?


Is it habitual, or am I doing it intentionally?


Would it damage my career if I make it my goal to speak more plainly?


A recent Gallup study showed that highly engaged workplaces experienced 41% lower absenteeism and were 21% more profitable. 


If you want more engaged workers, it could be worth cutting back on the corporate speak.


Try it, I guarantee it will come naturally; and you never know, in a gentle way, we might just change the business world.




Conall Horgan


At Talent Prospecting, we are experts in helping organisations identify, reward and retain their top talents. If you are interested in partnering with us, please visit our website talentprospecting.com and book a free consultation




References: 


Ipsos (2023). Doctors and scientists are seen as the world’s most trustworthy professions.  https://www.ipsos.com/en/global-trustworthiness-index-2022


Corporate Executive Board. (2016). Unlocking Communication Excellence: How to Drive Employee Engagement through Effective Internal Communication. Gartner. 


Haiilo (2023) Valène Jouany, Mia Mäkipää. 8 Employee Engagement Statistics You Need to Know in 2023. 


Deloitte. (2016). Global Human Capital Trends: The New Organization: Different by Design. Deloitte University Press.

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