Does Your Company Have a Mental Dress Code?


noun, North American, informal
Meaning: incomprehensible or pretentious language, especially bureaucratic jargon.
“the smooth chairman had elevated bafflegab to an art form”

If we took a time machine back to the 1990s and visited American corporate culture, in addition to wide ties and blocky cell phones, we would also see the Apple Newton in action, and fax machines widely in use. There was the Netscape IPO of 1995, Japan was the king of semiconductors, and the NASDAQ tipped over 1000.

We would also find people talking differently. They didn’t use the word “business model” widely. That term wouldn’t make it’s way out of MBA classes for a few more years, and people were still largely thought of as resources to be applied against goals, objectives and strategies. According to Harvard business historian Nancy Koehn, people weren’t talking about “energy” or “passion” or “purpose” in the way we do today.

Language certainly matters a great deal. The words we use when interacting with one another say a great deal about what we believe and value. But I’ll argue that repetition and overuse of insider language can balloon into an enormous crutch. It’s the reason business bingo exists.

In the 1980s, Pacific Bell publicly abandoned a failed $40 million “leadership development” effort based on the work of former aspiring-mystic-turned-management-consultant Charles Krone. The training program attempted to get everyone in the organization to adopt new, and often fantastical, language to gain efficiency and speed.

During this expensive and failed experiment of confusion and lost productivity, “task cycle” was an invented term to describe a system of managing a problem. Even the word “interaction” had it’s own impenetrable 39-word definition that employees had to understand.

Pushing people to speak and interact all the same way is the equivalent of enforcing a mental dress code.

There are plenty of annoying popular business phrases out there. “Let’s not try to boil the ocean” means let’s not waste time on something that will take forever. Rowing to Australia would take a long time too, but we don’t say that. Incidentally, the expression “boil the ocean” supposedly came from the humorist Will Rogers when asked how we should deal with German U-Boats during WWI. His answer was to simply boil the ocean, and added that the details of how to do that are up to someone else.

“Out of pocket” sounds silly. It means unavailable. The original intent was to explain a reimbursable expense, as in the cost came out of my pocket. Lord knows how this became reinterpreted to mean I will be unavailable. I searched and searched and found no satisfactory answer.

“Over the wall” needs to be canned too. It means to send something, like a document or a proposal, to a client or a vendor. But metaphorically it’s alienating. The expression suggests we’re dealing with someone foreign, even hostile. Why does it need to be a wall?

“Low-hanging fruit” came out of 1980s restructuring at General Electric. Peter Drucker had been hired by Jack Welch in the early 1980s to help get GE out of a down-cycle (damn, I did it myself!), and they worked together to try to remove corporate jargon from the conversation. Ironically, along the way they created more new terms in an attempt to destroy the old language. In addition to “low-hanging fruit,” that exercise also brought us the terms “rattlers” (meaning obvious problems) and pythons (meaning bloated bureaucracy).

“Burning platform” conjures images of Gandalf and the dragon Bairog fighting over a crumbling bridge above a cauldron of fire. Stop it. Try using the word “urgent” instead.

It goes on and on. Let’s keep this one: “ducks in a row.” I like that one. It’s cute. It comes from the days of pre-automated bowling alleys when humans had to place the bowling pins upright.

Whatever the common bafflegap in your organization, I encourage you to simply your language. If the expression needs explanation to anyone outside your company, you should probably slow down on use of it.


outthink_book_coverShawn Hunter is the Founder of Mindscaling and author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
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