How corporate jargon kills performance

One of the most interesting characteristics I try to uncover at the start of a collaboration with a client is this: the amount of corporate BS and jargon that people use in conversations and meetings. While this might sound odd for a consultant like me (I realize that us strategy guys use a lot of weird lingo ourselves), but it tells me more about a team’s ability to reach results than you might think. Apart from being an annoying habit, why bother? Because corporate BS and jargon are more than just annoying. They are real performance killers. 

Jargon negatively correlates with the level of understanding

Some time ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a client’s leadership team. Observing their discussions, I took mental notes about the discussion culture, like ‘passionate’ and ‘positive’. Experiencing the attitude and energy amongst the individuals, I expected that the group would have a very productive day, with many issues being re-solved, commitments to joint decision and a clear course of action. As the meeting continued, the conversations didn’t seem to reach conclusions, and the atmosphere became more and more tense. My observations shifted toward more concerning behaviors and the notes now mentioned ‘defensive’ and ‘wordy’. The group discussed topics at length, everyone was given a voice and people openly shared their thoughts. While this was a positive characteristic, at the same time, they didn’t make progress. It seemed as if they didn’t really understand each other. If one person gave an example about what someone else had mentioned, the other person would often state that that’s not what they meant. The team spent more time clarifying what they said than discussing ideas, agreeing on next steps, and taking decisions. It was excruciating. So, what was going on here? Back in my hotel room, I reflected on what I had witnessed. In a nutshell: the team talked past each other because they used large amounts of jargon and corporate BS instead of saying what they wanted to convey. They used terminology that wasn’t clear, all kinds of fancy sounding words without ever defining what they meant – or without contextualizing them. One example: “There’s still some alignment issues here. My team does not buy in to bringing this to the next level”, one of the leaders said. What she meant was: “My team did not understand the reason for this change, and a result, they are reluctant to implement the new standard operating procedure we proposed.”

Jargon prevents teams from reaching results

Jargon can be defined as ‘special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand’. In a corporate context, executives and consultants tend to fall victim to using jargon. They use terminology or formulations that sounds strange or foreign, especially to the wider population of an organization, i.e., people with a different background or field of expertise. The example of the team described above shows that not even they did not even fully understand their own lingo – with some serious consequences. For starters, the team wasted an incredible amount of time clarifying what was being said. Instead of just saying it right away. Consequently, the discussions weren’t results oriented. Imagine the amount of work they could have completed, topics they could have discussed and decisions they could have taken, had they not wasted so much time. This was just one meeting, imagine the scale of the issue on a corporate level! Secondly, when the team had finally discussed (and clarified) a topic they tried to agree on next steps; at least that’s what they thought they did. Because of the dominance of corporate lingo in their meeting minutes, there was a level of ambiguity at play that allowed people to chicken out of decisions and actions, stating that this was not what they understood when re-visiting the minutes. By using business speak, they not only wasted time and did not get much done. Thirdly, no-one held each other to account. This was because they felt they hadn’t established the grounds on which they could hold someone to account properly. Actions and decisions were formulated too vaguely. It was a nightmare.

The antidote to jargon is clarification questions

The more jargon a group uses, the less they understand what they are talking about. In that sense, the amount of jargon negatively correlates with the level of understanding a group achieves. The antidote: use every-day, normal language. Don’t try to impress others with the latest terms you have read or heard. Don’t BS your way through a meeting by fluffing up your language with fancy words; instead, say what you want to say. Be clear and specific! Try to avoid jargon as much as possible; don’t use terminology for the sake of using it. Jargon doesn’t help you, the team, or your organization to thrive. Instead, help the team increase understanding by asking clarification questions, such as:
  • Can you give an example to help us understand this expression?
  • What exactly are you referring to?
  • Sorry, I don’t know the term you just used, what does it mean?
  • Can you please specify what you mean by that?
  • Could I please ask you to clarify what (add term) means?
Don’t try to be the smartest sounding person in the room. Be the smartest person, by asking the questions that help the team move forward and achieve results! – Alex Brueckmann
Main image by Zuzana Ruttkayova on Pexels

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