Harold Hillman: How bad is the jargon at work?

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‘Blinking’ words sound important, but nobody knows what they really mean. Photo / 123RF
‘Blinking’ words sound important, but nobody knows what they really mean. Photo / 123RF

What are blinking words? Picture a lap top screen with the cursor sitting in front of a particular word - and the cursor is blinking so that it draws your attention to that word. And as long as the cursor stays there, you can't take your eye off the word. It's a blinking word.

Now think about a recent meeting when the team leader said something like this:

"We've seen major transformation this year, brought about by synergies that could only happen through collaboration and disruptive agility." In that one sentence alone, there are enough words blinking to light up Times Square.

Everyone nods their heads, but no one knows what any of those words really mean. And if the jargon is coming from the team leader, you are often reluctant to ask them to explain what they mean. Some people consider it too risky to ask for clarity.

It is even harder to ask for clarity when no one else seems to be confused.

People often assume that silence means that everyone else is tracking along nicely with the presentation. In reality, many people at the meeting don't know what is being said, but are hesitant to ask, for the same reason.

We can lose track of the jargon that creeps into our language at work. It is difficult for people to connect to a vision when they can't grasp what it means for them at a practical level.

The concept of democracy faltered during the Arab Spring because it was a blinking word to most citizens who were being asked to embrace it. It is no different in the workplace.

What are you talking about? Jargon is all around us at work. Some people use it to sound vogue and relevant. Other people wear jargon like a security blanket - to show their support for the latest initiative.

Some staff even turn jargon into a religion, where loyalty is defined by how quickly you can speak in this new tongue and convert others to the cause.

'Safety in numbers' is especially true when you want people to see that you are on board. It is difficult to stand out as the odd ball who doesn't get it. The newest team members will certainly feel this pressure.

We can lose track of the jargon that creeps into our language at work. It is difficult for people to connect to a vision when they can't grasp what it means for them at a practical level.

You want to sound like you know what is going on, even when you don't. It becomes even more apparent when you have to explain the blinking words to someone else - and you can't.

People can usually tell when you are struggling to explain a blinking word.

You look nervous, sound scripted and have no personal connection to the very thing you are asking them to sign up for. Your biggest fear is that someone will ask you to elaborate. Is it any wonder why the words then start to blink for the whole team as well?

Eight blinking words. Here are eight blinking words that get tossed around a lot in companies, yet many people don't understand what they really mean. When clarity is missing, so is connection. How many of these words are blinking for you?

1. Collaboration. This blinking word tops the list at the moment. Everybody is talking about how important it is. We are told that we need to collaborate better. Many companies have added collaboration to their list of values. Some companies even grade your performance on whether you do it well. Still, many people struggle to know what the word means at a practical level.

There are three important things to know about collaboration.

First, it requires a willingness to learn from someone else. Secondly, collaboration means that you make it easy for other people to bring their strengths to the table. Thirdly, it requires you to commit to the relationship, which cannot happen without trust.

If you truly want to collaborate, do you understand that this will only happen when you put ego and pride aside in order to get the best result?

2. Transformation. This blinking word has survived the test of time, a big favourite for the top brass to use when they are about to shake things up again. The implication is that the change is going to be big and that it will take us to a new level of performance. It all looks good on paper, but for many people, the end state is as big a mystery as the path to get there.

To transform the way you work, you have to transform the way you think. You won't get better customer service if your team thinks that customers are a bother. You will never get teams to collaborate and work together if they see each other as competitors. And the company will never disrupt anything as long as people think that change is a bad thing.

For true transformation, are you prepared to give your thinking a major overhaul - maybe even change the way you think about yourself?

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, is famous for his translated quote: "I think, therefore I am. If you get the head right, the heart will typically follow."

3. Innovation. This word blinks all day long in some companies. We hear how critical innovation is to the bottom line results. Some companies screen job applicants to see if they are innovative enough. Other companies have innovation pipelines, where they incubate new ideas. And hands down, innovation is the most celebrated blinking word of them all at the annual award ceremonies.

You will never get people to innovate if they are afraid of change. That fear is a mentality that often has a long history. If people associate change with personal strife and pain, it will be difficult for them to induce it in their own lives - personally or at work. Many innovation initiatives don't resonate deeply because the company is hard-wired to lock down around anything disruptive.

In a world where change is now swirling in cycles four times faster than 20 years ago, people and teams who resist change are going to struggle. If you want people to innovate, change their experience with change. A learning curve should be an adventure, not an episode of Survivor.

4. Diversity. In business, diversity is definitely the scariest of the blinking words. Many people are uncomfortable because the discussion often drills down around the biases that govern our decisions about people who are different. It is especially confronting if you are a team leader and your 'numbers' don't look good. In some companies, the optics are the most important thing.

In the early days of affirmative action in the US, diversity was framed as a numbers game, which only fuelled the flames around 'tokenism' and the pressure to hire people who were seen as unqualified, even when they were better candidates.

In those days, the business case for diversity was to avoid undue scrutiny. Five decades later, the business case is now tied to the bottom line.

Inclusion is different than tolerance. No one wants to be tolerated, which implies that you are only putting up with them because you have to. Tolerance creates an ugly energy. Inclusion is about respecting the unique perspective that everyone brings to the table, which is a positive energy.

Tolerance is about compliance. Inclusion is about commitment. These are two different mental models with two very different sets of priorities. What does diversity really mean in your company?

5. Sustainability. This blinking word was off the charts about ten years ago and has since settled down a bit, but it still pops up frequently enough. It is the most muddled of the blinking words, mainly because so many different things get lumped under it.

To sustain itself, a company must grow. This requires the help of several other blinking words, e.g., innovation & transformation - as if they don't have enough troubles on their own.

Some companies hitch their sustainability wagons to brand & reputation, others focus on governance and fiduciary standards, and some have linked it to being good stewards of the environment and earth.

If you want to test whether sustainability is a muddled word for the team, ask them to explain why and how it is important to the company.

It is a hard thing to do unless this 14 letter word becomes tangible and real to the people who must make it happen. Is it real for you?

6. Digital. This blinking word is the one with the most excitement around it at the moment. Digital is definitely the shiny new toy, as evidenced by how often it is used in nearly every part of the business. It sounds relevant and seems to inspire excitement about the future. Everyone wants a piece of digital.

The vocabulary around digital has grown far less technical, which was how it was positioned about a decade ago. The last ten years have changed all that.

We no longer think of digital as just an enabler, but instead it is being described as an end state, where people and technology will become one. It's exciting because we are all living it now in our personal lives. We are the Jetsons.

Digital mind-set, digital culture, digital divide, digital economy, digital world - this blinking word is popping up in conversations all over the company.

Digital is the blinking word with the most runway ahead of it, which is why people are clamouring to find some way to make it relevant for their teams.

Before you jump on the bandwagon with everyone else, stop long enough to ask yourself: what does digital really mean to us?

7. Empowerment. This word has been blinking on full wattage in companies for two decades with no sign of easing up. Anyone who has gone on a leadership course will typically come back fired up to show how much they can bring that word alive.

It feels good to empower and it feels good to be empowered. It's the one blinking word that most people can connect to viscerally.

Everyone knows how good it feels when you are trusted to do your job, and are given the space to spread your wings and grow your confidence. When this blinking word is in full swing, the experience is personally enriching - for both people.

If you are a team leader, do you give your people enough space to stretch themselves and grow their confidence on a learning curve?

If you are on a team, do you wait to be asked, or do you go in and ask for the opportunity to grow the business?

That's the true test of this blinking word in any person...and in any company. Do you and your manager define it the same way?

8. Leadership. This is the oldest of the blinking words and certainly the one with the most character and gravitas.

Who would dare to argue that strong leadership is not required, in both good and bad times? We have known this intuitively for centuries, but the empirical proof was delivered in the early 1990s to seal leadership's fate as the perennial favourite of all blinking words.

In the industrial era, leadership was far more about managing people and much less about leading them. As a leader, you relied on your management tool kit - which was full of processes, protocols, flow charts and performance check-lists.

Fast forward to 2016, where leaders are expected to be more vulnerable, less controlling and yes....more empowering. The meaning we attach to this very important word in business has definitely moved around.

The reality is that leadership is now more about navigating the grey space that resides between the black and white lines. It does require greater comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. Emotional intelligence now outweighs book smarts in being able to lead people through change.

It's easy to talk about why leadership is important. Are you and the team on the same page when it comes to what leadership looks like in action? Strong leaders are not afraid to calibrate with their teams on what is required and expected.

Stop the blinking. Jargon is useless because it usually does not connect. Sometimes we use fancy words that sound important because we want to impress people. But all we really do is confuse them more.

The next time you deliver a presentation on the company strategy, pick out three blinking words that you want people to be tightly calibrated around. Give clear examples of what you mean for each one.

If you are new to the company, you will hear dozens of blinking words all around you.

Take advantage of your 'newness' and ask for language lessons so that these words don't become obstacles on your learning curve. Other people will learn from your questions.

And the next time you are in a meeting and someone uses a blinking word that leaves everyone with that blank look on their face, show courage and ask the question.

It never fails that someone will thank you later for asking the question, which helped them move beyond their own blinking cursor too.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is an executive coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Previous roles include Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. He is the author of two books: ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ and ‘Fitting In, Standing Out.’ Visit www.sigmoidcurve.com or www.drharoldhillman.com.

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