Friday 10 February 2023

Most of us have been there. You are in a meeting and you can hear it approaching. You are bracing for impact as you are about to be metaphorically hit by another corporate one-liner.

From a long list of business talk idioms, topping the list of personal dislikes is when asked to connect those proverbial dots. And I’m not alone. Run a quick Google search – or speak to your colleagues – and you will come across numerous stories about the unequivocal irritation corporate jargon inflicts on its listeners. First world problems, I know.

The question is why do people within organisations keep peppering their speech with such phrases, given the general dislike of them? More importantly, who benefits from the usage of the buzzwords? Is it the speaker who possibly wants to come across sounding more intelligent? Perhaps. But arguably, it does not work. If anything, it shows that the person lacks imagination – and appropriate vocabulary – to suit the situation. And it certainly isn’t the audience either who are left either exasperated or, in certain instances, perhaps more puzzled than anything else.

Academia have studied the area with keen interest over the decades and the findings and recommendations seem to be a mixed bag. Researchers at Columbia University found that those wielding less power within organisations tend to incorporate more jargon into their speech to make up for their lesser status within the structure. Another study, by sociology researchers from University of Basel and New York University, found that those people who use business jargon will generally have a harder time to be taken seriously by the audience.

However, there are others such as Anne Curzan, Professor of English at the University of Michican, who are vocal proponents of business jargon. She encourages its deliberate use within organisations to promote a sense of belonging. Indeed, creating the desire to fit in was how the business chat came about in the first place. The origins can be traced back to the post-WW II era when large corporations, particularly in America, started diversifying their propositions. Management were concerned that any loyalty towards and pride working for a particular firm would be lost as a result of the human melting pot effect the mergers and acquisitions would create. A uniting language was deemed a useful preventative measure.

Scientific theories aside, people would possibly have more sympathy for the usage of the ambiguous phrases if no other suitable and precise alternatives existed. But the last time I checked there were over a million words in the Oxford English dictionary to choose from. Undoubtedly, plenty of appropriate options to suit the case.

In the world of business, professional service companies pay close attention to any form of written communication. The outputs need to be to articulate, polished and succinct and there is no room for unnecessary waffle. Why do the same rules not seem to apply to verbal communication? The same white-collar organisations spend not insignificant amounts of staff training budgets on all manner of communication masterclasses where the one unifying message is the importance of using simple and easily understandable language during any form of communication, be that written or verbal.

Talking about the need to use understandable language, think about those who are just starting out in the world of work: ‘You what? Take a deep dive where, what?’. Puzzled looks all around. It is worse still for those whose first language isn’t English. Mastering the English language, with all its nuances and intricacies, is hard enough as it is without the added pressure of needing to learn the intended meaning of the gobbledygook. Spare a thought for the bright young to-be-investment-banker who has travelled from a far-away country to do a summer internship and is asked to touch base with colleagues. Here’s hoping the fledgling English speaker does not inadvertently take the suggestion the wrong way.

So, next time, without trying to reinvent the wheel, try going a whole week picking neither anyone’s brain – unless, of course, you are a neurosurgeon – nor any low-hanging fruit – unless you pick fruit for a living. By staying original with your choice of words is as refreshing to you as it is to the audience. In doing that, you might finally succeed at being on the same wavelength with said audience and become the gamechanger your organisation has been longing for.

Friday 27 January 2023

How many times have you come across a job advert where the organisation shouts proudly about their credentials with regards to inclusive cultures and righteous values underpinning everything they do?

This is all well and good but unfortunately, for the most part, it is all much of a muchness. The same old regurgitated lines – used by most organisations – that are vague at the best of times. It all comes across as a bit of a lazy effort, suggesting that it is done merely to satisfy the requirements of some virtuous corporate box ticking exercise.

Flogging aside, the key concern with this approach is that it lacks transparency. That in itself is not always going to cause insurmountable issues but, at the same time, it can potentially lead to some significant conflicts in terms of personal values and beliefs further down the line.  

I should make it clear that the purpose of this piece is not to make any political arguments for any side – instead, it is simply about reporting some observations that have been made over the years.

The problem we have is that large organisations often create so called house views – the equivalent of political ‘party lines’ – on major societal issues. The difficulty is that these various views are not always out in the open until such time that they rear their heads due to circumstance. Think about Brexit. What if the house view was the polar opposite to your personal beliefs? During client interactions you are representing your employer, but how can you realistically speak fervently in favour of something that you are in fact fundamentally opposed to? How would you go about trying to convince your clients about the positive impact of Brexit in your industry if you personally did not believe in it, but rather the opposite?

Another example is the London based senior HSBC banker who delivered a controversial conference speech last year downplaying the risks of climate change on the investment market. He was roundly suspended from duty pending investigation before he voluntarily stepped down from his role a few months later. Whilst this particular person might have been in the privileged position to leave their post, quitting a permanent role with nothing to fall back on in a highly competitive job market when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed is not a realistic option for most people. Consider the health care workers who got the sack after they refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19 (in fairness, the UK Government has since abolished the vaccination mandate). A switch to the private sector from the NHS did not provide any immunity (no pun intended) for that lot. They simply weren’t allowed to practice their chosen profession – irrespective of their employer.  

And it is not just Covid-19 and climate change that divide opinions. Immigration; LGBTQ+ rights; the BLM movement; abortion and gun control in the U.S.; Harry and…hmm, perhaps let’s stop there. But you get the point that there are clearly any number of topics that can be hugely divisive.  

Granted, not every single contentious issue has a bearing on the type of work your organisation does in which case the views of individuals do not really matter. But you can see where possible personal conflicts may arise, given the sector and industry the person works in. 

So, what can be done about it?

Could one option be that companies aimed to become a bit more like political parties with clear manifestos so that the different stakeholder groups would know exactly what they are signing up to? On paper it does sound like a dystopian suggestion that could potentially lead to increased tribalism between different factions of society. However, if you think about it, it could work broadly in the same way it does with newspapers and broadcast media where the left-right division of the industry is obvious within most Western capitalist societies. That’s not to say that people within these structures agree on every single issue but at least at some basic level they tend to see eye to eye whatever the topic. 

Arguably, the reason why it works with newspapers is the lack of ambiguity. Whilst most large organisations in the Western world churn out the same unclear information about their cultures and values, news outlets tend to take much stronger positions on the issues they stand for and are against. People working with and for or buying the Guardian – or, conversely, the Telegraph – know exactly the organisation’s stance on key societal issues. Nothing comes a big surprise, and they are happy to subscribe to those underlying values, as workers, suppliers, and customers. The same goes for the shareholders. They are unlikely to invest in a given business if they are fundamentally against the company’s mission and values, however lucrative the potential returns. Would a pro-life advocate help fund a new private medical practice specialising in abortions or a diehard anti-drug campaigner help set up a legal cannabis farm?  With the majority of the shareholders on their side, the CEO will have an easier time, much like in politics, implementing his/her strategy that in turn allows them to realise their vision for the organisation.

Friday 13 January 2023

Second week of January. It is that time of year again when people are trying hard not to let their new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside. Some people have similar gnawing feelings about personal objectives within the company they work for. Not necessarily so much about meeting the ever-changing objectives but instead about the process of getting them down on paper.

Those of us who have worked for large organisations are familiar with the dreaded, time-consuming task of writing one’s work objectives. The lucky ones in senior roles get to do it numerous times over with their direct reports.

It is an exercise that costs time and money. Lots of it.  

As a very crude example, let’s imagine each staff member of a corporate spends a very conservative average of 10 hours per year thinking/writing/previewing/re-writing/submitting/reviewing (yawn) their individual objectives. Do the maths based on the head count of your organisation and think whether the aggregate man-hours (yes, you read correctly) could be spent doing something a bit more productive such as serving the existing client(s) or pitching for the next project – anything that is actually going to bring in some revenue?

The objectives come in all sorts of weird and wonderful acronyms. One of my friends told me recently that she was in the process of writing her work objectives. One desired attribute was ‘curiosity’. Here is a person who has worked for the same company for the best part of 20 years, knows her job like the back of her hand and is by all accounts very good at it. Why is she required to provide examples of how she’ll be showing curiosity as she goes about her daily duties? Surely, if she had not performed well her employer would have got rid of her a long time ago. Needless to say, I co-cringed with her as she was telling me the story. What is this patronising approach doing to peoples’ motivation? Could it in fact have the opposite effect to the one that is desired?

What is worse about work objective setting within corporates is that the ink has barely dried on the signed and sealed version of the previously set objectives when the reminder comes in saying it is time to start the process all over again, reviewing and re-writing – yet again – something that had been set just a few short months ago.

Compare that to start ups. Do they spend endless hours setting, discussing and reviewing individual staff members’ objectives? No. They focus on what arguably every single business – wherever they are in their lifecycle – should be doing and that is – hustling and bustling – working hard to survive.

There should of course be a formal structure in place that facilitates a fair way of assessing who deserves the next promotion, pay rise or bonus but surely there must be a way of doing this in a much more streamlined manner that saves both time and money.

You can wax lyrical about it, but the reality is that the majority of workforce across the board works for the simple reason of earning a living. No sentimental stuff – just a simple exchange of the worker’s most precious commodity – time – for money. The more of it the better. It then follows that, for the most part, the objectives should be linked to an opportunity to earn more. After all – increasing earnings is exactly what for-profit companies are aiming for first and foremost.

In the interest of keeping the company and individual objectives aligned, perhaps the objective setting process could adopt a far more top-down approach than what is currently being done. A clear set of objectives would be set for the year ahead for each team and for specific roles within them. If you hit the set targets you will get that pay rise, bonus, promotion or all of the above. A simple, fair and straightforward way of assessing performance against a common set of objectives without making such a meal out the whole process.

Think about professional footballers. Everyone within the squad knows what is expected of them on and off the pitch, given their role. They perform their best and if they hit certain targets they get bonuses on top of their already handsome financial rewards. If they don’t, they will be benched or got rid of.  

I somehow doubt Cristiano Ronaldo was asked to set SMART objectives after joining the Saudi Arabia side Al Nassr a few weeks ago. Why would it need to be any different within a corporate work setting where everybody belongs to a team in the same way he does? Whether you are a world class footballer or a corporate workhorse, you are all professionals and should be treated as such.