At my first full-time job about 11 years ago, I was surprised at the tone of company-wide corporate conference calls. Everyone in our office would pile into the conference room with the phone put on speaker—and some at the conference table would sit with their eyes closed. Their eyes weren’t shut in deference or for meditation purposes, like people close their eyes during religious ceremonies. They just found the best use of the half-hour they were forced to sit through was to rest their eyes. It was such standard practice they never even bothered to hide what they were doing. It was as if we were on an early morning commuter train rather than listening to an update from the company’s executives.
It wasn’t that these closed-eye employees were poor performers. Most were highly regarded and very productive. I quickly realized the reason they spent the time resting their eyes was that the calls were packed with vague, meaningless, propaganda-like language. Most of us were writers and editors, so we could easily spot vacuous language. “Optimizing synergies” and “consolidation” (sometimes paired with synergies, as in “consolidating our synergies”) were two favorites of our corporate-speak leaders. We would crack open our eyes, look at one another, laugh softly, and go back to our daydreams.
Most companies aren’t made up of wordsmiths, but that doesn’t mean employees don’t notice corporate communications that say nearly nothing. A column last week in the Huffington Post by Maddie Crum examined the tendency to use what she calls “workplace jargon” in the corporate world. “It’d be easy to dismiss empty language like ‘value-add’ and ‘deep dive’ as silly turns of phrase, but they’re more detrimental than that. Just as thoughts shape language, the language we use has the power to shape our thoughts and actions. That’s right: Empty speaking not only conveys empty thinking, it can promote it, too,” Crum writes.
Corporate trainers and Human Resources executives seem to have a great opportunity to shape the language used in the workplace. Often tasked with launching new company-wide change initiatives, trainers and HR executives should look carefully at the language they, themselves, use in communications to managers and employees. For instance, in covering training for almost nine years, I’ve noticed heavy use of the term, “stakeholder.” What does that mean to you? I’ve always hated the term because instead of a sense of empowerment, it always makes me think simply of red tape—people at your company, or those with a relationship to your company, who are likely to throw up roadblocks to plans for positive change. In other words, it makes me think of people you have to ask permission of, rather than people who are ready to be a helpful part of the change process. Is that the interpretation you were hoping for?
An expression that kept popping up around 2007/2008 was “cascading.” Companies were always “cascading” change or new learning throughout the organization. Was “cascading” used because it seemed less negative than “trickling” or “dripping”? It’s a word that ordinarily makes me think of beautiful phenomena such as waterfalls. But in a corporate setting, it makes me suspicious. It seemed like a whitewashed way of describing a top-down initiative or mandate. Did you mean for me to think of “cascading” as new learning that would organically travel through the organization, as peacefully as a brook or river winding through the country? People wouldn’t be forced to do anything because the new learning would just naturally “cascade” everywhere. I suspected that was what the use of “cascade” was supposed to achieve, but I always thought it sounded like a euphemism.
The problem with vague, whitewashed language is while it can spare feelings and avoid controversy, it also usually fails to substantively communicate. It fulfills the requirement of having a regularly scheduled, or even mandated, communication with employees, investors, or other “stakeholders,” but it doesn’t have the power to affect behavior. That’s a good thing if the goal of the communication is simply to limit damage, but if your goal is to inspire or improve employee performance, you might be better off sending around apropos workplace cartoons—at least then everyone could share a laugh together, acknowledging the shared joke.
Are there ways trainers and Human Resources leaders can monitor and improve the language used in company-wide communications? How do you create meaningful, instructive communications with your employees?