About five years ago I was invited by one of my clients, who was the CEO of a small but highly successful investment management firm, to sit in on his weekly leadership team meeting. He asked me to take notes and then comment on each presenter’s effectiveness.
The meeting started with a young executive going on and on about how great the company’s Boston office was doing. He then paused for effect and summarized: “So you see, it’s essential that we leverage Boston on a go forward basis if we are going to grow AUM.”
The audience looked at each other, at him, and then each other. After about 10 seconds of silence someone started clapping awkwardly.
I knew I was supposed to sit quietly, but if no one else would ask, then I would. I put my hand up and asked, “What exactly does it mean to leverage your Boston office?”
The speaker fixed me with a puzzled stare, then silently appealed to his CEO for help. “Well,” he said, “I don’t exactly know, but there must be something good we can do with them.”
The rise of jargon
A speaker using big words. An audience who thinks they should know what those words mean. A lost connection and a missed opportunity. This situation repeats itself day in and day out. I’ve watched for over a decade jargon in the workplace undermine leaders and fail to motivate audiences.
The best way to inspire audiences to act is to convey clear, compelling ideas. Language is the vehicle through which your ideas travel from your mind to your audience. Make your language powerful and you end up with something memorable like, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Use jargon and risk your ideas being ignored or misinterpreted.
The five worst offenders—and what to do about them
Whether you’re an entrepreneur bootstapping a startup or the CEO of a mature, thriving business, you should be on the lookout for jargon in your organization—and be willing to call it when you hear it.
Here are the worst of the bunch and what you should tell your staff if you happen to hear any of these words from them.
This is a word that has appeared out of nowhere to, well, disrupt my inner calm. You may have seen it used in sentences like, “We will disrupt the ___________ industry to achieve world domination”, or, “He’s the leading disruptor in that segment.”
What’s wrong with it: Disrupt (and other words that fall into this category like transform, synergize and leverage) sounds impressive yet actually says nothing. It can be a euphemism for “change,” “shake up,” “take over,” or so many other words that it actually specifies nothing.
If you hear it from your people: Tell them if they want to use a word like disrupt, they must define clearly what they mean by it: “When I say disrupt, I mean get the client to buy this product from an entirely new source, allowing us to become the market leader.”
Is it a noun? Or verb? You can be forgiven for using it as long you didn’t just answer “both.” I was shocked to hear that one company “consequenced” employees who did not meet their performance targets. Not content to turn a noun into a verb, this company also scheduled regular “consequencing” sessions with their staff. I’m sure everyone looked forward to those.
What’s wrong with it: Consequencing is an example of a particularly tragic linguistic trend, turning a noun into an action. Think of “solutioning,” “score-carding,” or, “metric-ing.”
If you hear it from your people: Ask them to please not turn nouns into verbs or adjectives that don’t exist. There are plenty of actual words they can use instead.
I blinked the first time I heard this one when an HR leader was telling me about the company’s plans to “decruit” a portion of their sales force. “You mean you are going to fire them?” I asked. There was an awkward silence and then she responded, “Well, yes¦but we don’t like to put it so bluntly.”
What’s wrong with it: It’s a euphemism for a word that people don’t like saying “fired.” Variations include, “you’ve been released to the market”, “you’re being rightsized.” And guess what: not one of these fool anyone.
If you hear it from your people: Tell them to say what they mean—even if that may result in tough conversations. Let them know that leaders don’t shy away from difficult realities, and are willing to use language accordingly.
4. On a go forward basis
People in the workplace love to tack this expression onto the end of every sentence. “We’ve got the right team in place¦on a go-forward basis.” Or, “We are poised to win more customers with this product on a go-forward basis.” In fact, there is really no sentence that doesn’t sound more impressive with this expression at the end. Try it: “Honey, I wanted you to pick up the kids on a go-forward basis.”
What’s wrong with it: It’s a meaningless add-on. Because we never say, “on a go-backward basis” there is never a reason to say, “on a go-forward basis.”
If you hear it from your people: Tell them that if they are actually referring to something in the future, they can simply say, “in the future.” Otherwise, they should banish this expression entirely¦on a go forward basis.
5. Balanced scorecard stakeholder mapping exercise
What does this even mean? When I asked, it took about thirty minutes before I finally was left with some semblance of clarity.
What’s wrong with it: It’s a noun cluster. It consists of multiple pieces of jargon mashed together into a frankensteinian linguistic creation.
If you hear it from your people: Run. Fast.
Bart Egnal is an executive coach and a Vancouver-based partner and senior vice-president with The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.
More columns by Bart Egnal