Is management speak always a waste of time?

Weird Al Yankovic recently struck a chord with his single Mission Statement, mocking corporate jargon
It’s annoying, but corporate jargon can often serve a useful purpose.
When thinking of management gurus, the last person to come to mind is the comic singer-songwriter Weird Al Yankovic. But his recently released album Mandatory Fun provides some cutting observations about the kind of jargon that’s taken over business.
One track, Mission Statement, is made up of an apparently random collection of corporate cliches: “We must all efficiently operationalise our strategies. Invest in world class technologies, and leverage our core competencies.” The video has been viewed well over 1m times in less than two weeks on YouTube – he’s clearly struck a chord.
Professional jargon has its uses – think of lawyers, doctors and engineers. It allows experts to say in a few words what it would take the lay person many words to express.
But management speak is unlike other kinds of jargon. Instead of encouraging brevity, it pads out presentations. A matter that could be dealt with in minutes takes hours. Rather than ensuring precision, it can encourage fuzzy thinking. This happens when phrases like “strategic alignment” or “talent optimisation” are used to talk about job cuts.
Management jargon also seems to encourage the amateur. It’s remarkably flexible and can be used by even the most mediocre novice. In fact, it’s often used to compensate for lacking expertise.
So we all know the dangers of management speak, but what are its upsides? If it’s such a waste of time, why do people use it? One big positive is that using these abstract phrases can make you appear powerful. A recent study by Cheryl Wakslak from the University of Southern California found that people who used abstract language were judged to being more powerful than people who talked in a concrete and practical way.
Management speak is also frequently used by individuals and organisations to manicure their image. Firms adopt the latest management jargon to appease investors, analysts, customers, suppliers and regulators. A study by Barry Staw and Lisa Epstein from the University of California at Berkeley found that when firms adopted the latest management fad, their economic performance did not increase. But they were perceived as more innovative, with higher quality management, and as more admired by others. Crucially, their chief executive was likely to get higher pay.
Fortunately, much management speak is relatively harmless, and is disconnected from what actually goes on in a company. A recent book on organisational reforms by Nils Brunsson from Uppsala University in Sweden found that organisations started reform initiatives to show they were in line with current management fashions.
But the reforms were rarely implemented – they would rapidly start a new wave of changes before the last round was finished. While the management speak in a company would change quickly, the firm’s core processes stayed relatively stable. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
Weird Al Yankovic encourages us to laugh at management speak. This is important. Imagine if a firm tried to implement all the new practices that spew out of the central executive. But investors and other stakeholders want to hear the “right thing”, which often means using jargon. So sometimes the easiest option is to be a hypocrite.
Andre Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School.

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