“We need to innovate” says the General Manager. “One of our goals for the coming year will be to be more innovative. We need to create a paradigm shift. We need to future proof the business. Going forward our strategy will be to be truly customer centric. We will engage with our customers and capture their hearts and minds. Our people will become agile, innovative, and capable of blue sky thinking in creating solutions for them. They will possess a can-do attitude and be change champions. This will be our window of opportunity.”
This became the company’s vision.
Twelve months later the business is no more customer centric than it was before.
How many speeches have you heard just like this?
Lots of buzzwords words but very little substance.
Here’s a short quiz. How many words and phrases in the above sentence would fail the jargon test? How many would be part of a game of buzzword or B**S bingo? (Answer at least 15)
Jargon has its place however it is grossly overused today. Hardly a meeting, value statement or one to one discussion is void of jargon.
Why is it so popular?
I believe it has a lot to do with our need to belong; a powerful instinct we all have. In the workplace our need to belong can be all encompassing. You see belonging is about how secure we feel and about fitting in with the crowd. We want to part of the team and so we take on the values and mannerisms of others. Jargon is part of fitting in. We hear others use it and so we follow suit so we sound the same. It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand what the terms mean. It is the perception of being like them that matters. We use the words to show we fit.
And here lies the big problem.
Jargon kills conversation.
When jargon is attached to status or the desire to fit in, people are less inclined to seek an understanding of what the words actually mean. You are so eager to show that you belong; that you are “one of them”, you are not going to risk this by asking what a word/phrase actually means.
And so jargon becomes meaningless, empty vessels that block understanding, questions, ideas and suggestions.
Imagine you are sitting in the meeting where the General Manager says the above statement. Who is going to stand up and ask the GM to clarify what she has just said? Who will ask how exactly will this opportunity be implemented?
I would think no one.
When senior leaders use jargon it is unlikely others will question or challenge. The conversation that gives depth and meaning remains unspoken.
Jargon also kills conversation by sending our brain’s activity into the primitive parts where negativity and distrust flourish. Many people consider jargon with very low regard. Unsurprisingly these are often people who distrust their leaders and are sceptical of any changes announced. When jargon is used these people lose trust and their mind closes down. You can actually see it happen. It isn’t the person’s fault; their brains are only responding to the words used.
If you are a leader of a team or a department, how often do you use jargon when you speak to your team? How many of your team close their minds to you as a result? You may have the best of intentions in what you want to say however the impact can be devastating.
If you do find yourself using jargon here are two ways to encourage rather than kill the conversation
- Ask your team what they understand the word/phrase means to them. For example you may want your team to be “change champions”. Rather then just expect them to understand what this actually means, talk with the team about what a change champion does. What are the responsibilities / expectations? How will the role operate or perform? Ask them if they would prefer to use different terminology given that “change champion” is jargon
- If you make a statement/ expectation like we all need to be more “innovative”, ensure you spend time discussing how this will be actioned. What does innovativeness look like in your team? What resources and opportunities will there be to enable people to be innovative? What process will be in place for the innovative ideas to be given consideration and approval?
All of a sudden you begin to engage your people in rich discussion which triggers activity in their higher order brains where creativity, critical thinking and possibility live. It creates true belongingness through sharing, trust and honesty.
You see it is possible to use jargon provided it is not simply used to prove you belong. You just need to fill the empty meaningless vessel of a jargon word/phrase with meaning and understanding.