Last reviewed 11 September 2015

Going forward, can we action a root and branch review, or perhaps execute a drill-down, of management speak? And then get rid of it for good says Gudrun Limbrick.

The 1980s were a dark time — and not just in terms of politics, economics or even fashion, although they each, in their way added to the gloom. Filofaxes — tiny little ring binders that purported to help us organise our lives at extraordinary cost — became unfathomably popular, and people with money began carrying around enormous portable phones so that they could stay in permanent contact (until such time as the battery failed) with the one other person they knew who also had several hundred pounds to throw at this cumbersome new technology. It will never catch on, we all prayed. But, as if shoulder pads and pixie boots were not enough, the 1980s also allowed management speak to really take a firm grip on the country and, some thirty years later, we are still paying the price.

It was obvious that, like loom bands, tamagotchis and ra-ra skirts, management speak was one of those crazy fads that made no sense at all to anyone not immediately under its spell, and it would surely fade as quickly as it came. But, against all common sense, this simply has not happened. Management speak is still with us and, if anything, it is getting worse — or, at least, it is getting more unfathomable.

A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management of 2000 managers, found that management speak is used in two-thirds of offices. That is a horrifying statistic — in around 66% of offices, people are openly talking nonsense that is only fully understood by a minority of the rest of us if, indeed, it is understood by anyone at all.

Some management speak is simply made up words. “Intrepreneur” for example, is an invention to convey the idea of a person who uses entrepreneurial talents while at work, rather than for self-employment. There is a whole family of words that have come, like intrepreneur, from an entirely decent pre-existing word but then twisted into something ghoulish and terrifying. Take “diarise”, “actioning”, and “incentivise”, for example; all entirely reasonable and well-understood words that are now used on a daily basis in this new disfigured state. As far as I can recollect, “diarise” came along at the same time as Filofaxes — a personal organisation system thought to be so revolutionary that it warranted a new verb. “Make a date”, “do” and “offer incentives” were all perfectly good ways of speaking before some bright spark decided that we should “diarise”, “action”, and “incentivise”. Making “action” into a verb also gave rise to an adjective “actionable” (something that can be done) and a noun – an “actionable” something to do. We are currently actioning an actionable action, when we could just be “doing something”.

Some things are literally a waste of breath; that add nothing to our understanding. “Going forward” has been gathering momentum for some time now and yet it appears to mean nothing more than “Things are not going to come to a complete stop now. Life will continue”. It has as much value as saying “er…” before you start speaking.

“Thinking in real time” is another example of something that simply does not need saying. Is it even possible to think in any other time? It means as much as “at the end of the day” or “it’s a game of two halves”.

Other management speak is constructed of perfectly standard words arranged in such a way that they are intended to mean something else. “Circle back” is a good example but there are many: “strategic staircase”, “from the get-go”, “drill down”, “have a thought shower” (aka “think of ideas”) and — each meaning “talk” — “touch base”, “reach out” and “take this offline”.

Some management speak is really getting out-of-hand. We became so used to “thinking outside the box” for example, that I am now hearing “thinking inside the box” to mean “let’s not get carried away but let’s have some bog-standard workable ideas”. It is all too easy to forget that there was never actually a box in the first place. What is next? Will “blue sky thinking” give rise to “overcast sky with a risk of rain later” thinking. And 110% to describe maximum effort is now so commonplace that if we hear “I gave that 100%”, it just does not sound like enough anymore, even though, let’s face it, 100% has always been the maximum amount actually possible.

The research finding that this sort of nonsense is going on in two thirds of offices is shocking, but the finding that shocked me most is that fewer than a quarter workers find it to be “a pointless irritation”. Are we all just too used to it?

Surely irritation is the least of the problems that all this jargon can cause. Management speak is downright confusing. We have to assume that this rapidly developing way of talking actually means the same thing to the same people and can be clearly understood. This is not necessarily true and yet the jargon is not just used amongst tight groups of managers, but seeps out to customers, partners and service users, who may have little idea of what is meant. It is also not just staying within spoken conversations but gets into written documents where it can be even more confusing. This can potentially be bad for business.

However, the worst crime of management speak is arguably how it can make non-users feel. Listening to people using a “secret language” can make people feel excluded from the management team using it. This can not only discourage effective communication but may also make some people feel that they cannot apply to join the management team as they do not even understand the language. This can be a serious barrier to advancement in an organisation (please note, I am not using the phrase “glass ceiling”!).

I have a sneaking suspicion that management speak was invented by people who were in need of an ego-boost. They perhaps felt at sea in their role and needed to make themselves seem a bit more clever or superior and so began to use a language that marked them out as being different from those they were managing. Much of the reason as to why we continue to use it now is that there is often a pressure to keep up with other managers in order to be part of the team. Eradicating management speak is only going to happen with a conscious effort that involves understanding how unclear it can be and how isolating it can seem to those not familiar with it.

It is, let’s face it, all too easy to slip into using the same jargon that everyone else uses — we do it almost subconsciously. I have been irritated by management speak for some time but it was only when looking at it more closely that I realised how much I have subsumed into my every day vocabulary. But, conversely, looking at it more closely also made me become very aware of how ridiculous much of it is once you think about it. The idea that (otherwise clever and clear-speaking) grown people are talking about boxes that do not exist, blue skies they cannot explain, ducks in a row that will never get shot and efforts that can reach 200%, is really very odd indeed.