Some Thoughts to Run Up the Flagpole

Image: Gavin Llewellyn

In this post we’re going to drill down into something that has long been a disruptive game changer: the rise of office speak. Many question whether any of it has been a value-add.

But Emma Green of The Atlantic looks at the history of corporate jargon and suggests that it’s a little more complicated than that. The phraseology of the workplace “may seem meaningless to the extent that it’s best described as ‘bullshit,’ but it actually reveals a lot about how workers think about their lives,” Green writes. Much of it was born of a mid-20th-century effort to give workers more of a connection to their work.

Yes, a lot of the terms are ugly—“ideation,” “operational efficiencies,” etc.—and many are merely efforts to dress up something banal, to euphemize something unpleasant, or to signal membership of an in-group. But office speak also reflects shifting values and sends important signals to employees about the mindset of the organization.

For instance, the current vogue for buzzwords such as “work-life balance” and “passion” suggests how companies are mindful of making work meaningful yet not all-consuming. “Everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it,” Green concludes. “In a workplace that’s fundamentally indifferent to your life and its meaning, office speak can help you figure out how you relate to your work—and how your work defines who you are.”

We believe that one reason the writings of Peter Drucker feel as fresh as they do is that Drucker kept his terms simple, eschewing fashionable words of the moment, even as he kept a mordant eye on important shifts. He frowned at “‘human relations’ jargon,” at “impenetrable sociological jargon” and at the “the illiterate jargon of the Marxists” of the 1930s.

In The Frontiers of Management he noted that companies were not necessarily good at attracting talent even though it was “becoming fashionable to rename the personnel department ‘the department of human resources,’” and in Managing for the Future he called “synergy” and its variants a “much-abused term.” He warned against departments becoming isolated so that “they are fluent only in their own jargon.”

But if Drucker was wary of old ideas dressed up in new words, he did see a necessity for new words when they described some genuinely new phenomenon. For instance, while the term “feedback” applied to a business setting was not Drucker’s invention (it seems to have gotten its launch from a 1955 article, “Feedback: A Method of Evaluating and Improving Management Training,” by Charles B. Hedrick in Personnel magazine), Drucker considered it central to good management and adopted it enthusiastically. And the famous term “knowledge worker,” now in common parlance, was a Drucker coinage (though economist Fritz Machlup also shares credit).

Meanwhile, one piece of office jargon that Drucker would have welcomed was a replacement for the word “employee,” a term he considered to be obsolete in many cases. “The relationship between knowledge workers and their organizations is a distinctly new phenomenon, one for which we have no good term,” he wrote in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “These discrepancies—and they exist in just about every language—remind us why new realities often demand new words.”

What forms of office speak do you find particularly useful—or terrible—and why?