Is Business Jargon A Good Thing?

We All Hear It And Use It, But Is It Productive?

By Steve Schumacher

Early in my career, I worked with a large aerospace government contractor. I recall very clearly going to a social gathering with my co-workers, not long after I was hired. I did what most people do at social gatherings, mingle with others. 

It did not take long for me to feel completely left out of conversations. Even then, I prided myself on having the ability to discuss a lot of topics. Unfortunately for me, the majority of the discussions that night were filled with company and department, acronyms and jargon. I was completely lost and found myself simply nodding my head and feeling foolish.

What I learned from that experience is, if I wanted to become part of the group at work, I needed to do my homework quickly. That homework included finding out what jargon and acronyms were used most often and what they meant. 

I was lucky because the company had realized that the use of jargon had become a language of its own. There was an inordinate amount of time being spent by new employees in confusion, making mistakes, and feeling bewildered. Two full-time employees were dedicated, for six months, to developing a jargon and acronym dictionary for the company. I got a copy of that dictionary and learned as quickly as I could. It did not take long for me to become part of the group, using the appropriate new language.

Over the ensuing years, I have been involved with hundreds of companies and experienced the same thing. There are industry/company/function-specific terms that bond employees together. It is natural for us, as humans, to seek areas of commonality. Being able to “speak the language” of our profession and company is one of those areas. Having that commonality among employees can increase efficiency and quality of work, as long as everyone understands the language in the same way.

Here are some things to think about when considering the “second language” that shows up at work.

Beware of “corporate speak”. Sometimes, in the absence of being able to express ourselves in a specific manner, we revert to generalities. Phrases like “at the end of the day”, “the bottom line”, “deep dive”, “empower”, “game changer”, etc. The effect of those phrases is to get people to nod their head, as if they understand when they really do not. For some of us, these phrases are like conversation fillers, like “um”, “uh”, “you know”, etc. We use them so often that we do not realize what is coming out of our mouths. I knew a CEO who answered the majority of questions with the phrase, “there are three aspects to that.” He felt like putting a number on his response like that got people’s attention. In reality, people came to expect it and actually starting to take bets on how and when he would say the phrase. 

Orient new employees. Incorporate training on the company language into training new hires. If you do not think that it is pervasive enough to do this, perhaps work with HR on a survey asking employees for their opinions. You might also ask an outsider to spend a few weeks in your organizations attending meetings and talking to people. Their assignment is to get an objective viewpoint on the prevalence of jargon and company language. The goal is not to point fingers. The goal is to better understand the culture and work with it.

Training on impact of jargon. Put together some mini workshops to address the issue of jargon overuse. These are commonly overly used words and phrases in both business and society-at-large. They typically are empty words and the speaker can lose credibility if they use them too much. Examples – low hanging fruit, bleeding edge, leverage, trim the fat, etc. A little now and then is fine, but using phrases like this too often is problematic.

Set the model. Get some feedback on your personal style and use of jargon and empty phrases. Technical terms that are company/department/profession specific are probably fine, as long as the audience understands them. Keep in mind that people that are lower in the organization chart than you probably will not speak up about their inability to understand. You must ask questions of understanding and watch body language closely.

The use of jargon and corporate-speak is incredibly common in all organizations. As a leader, the question to ask yourself is how much productivity is lost, and bad decisions made because of misunderstanding. Do some questioning and training and you will be fine.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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