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Buzzkill: Replace Business Buzzwords with a Valuable Common Language

As we navigate the new normal, let’s circle back to assess our bandwidth, then pivot and take a deep dive into our core competencies. This assessment of synergies could be a game changer if we give 110 percent, get buy-in from the team, and then reap the low-hanging fruit.

Sounds as familiar as it does ridiculous, doesn’t it? We’re all guilty of spewing business jargon without considering how this messaging comes across. And there are several reasons we fall into this trap. For example:

  • We use buzzwords to show we belong in a specific business setting—we know the local language.
  • Employees follow their boss’s example and imitate the lexicon they hear leaders using.
  • We rely on jargon like a verbal shorthand to save time in conveying ideas.

But “at the end of the day,” many of these catchphrases are hollow and fail to convey important points.

The Downside of Business Jargon

A MasterClass article offers three substantive reasons to avoid resorting to business jargon—beyond the fact that these buzzwords can be like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  1. Business jargon is imprecise.
    Buzzwords don’t relay the nuances of ideas. The point of any communication should be to effectively share thoughts on a given topic so that others thoroughly understand them. Instead of rattling off “business speak,” we should straightforwardly say or write our opinions. Our message should be functional.
  2. Business jargon is inauthentic.
    Most people feel more comfortable using the same vocabulary at work as in other areas of their lives. So when we choose to use more relatable and authentic language over catchphrases, we can help coworkers feel more relaxed and receptive. But leaders and staff members who rely on buzzwords can seem pretentious, robotic, and elitist, which often distances them from other employees.
  3. Business jargon is unoriginal.
    By the time a term has reached buzzword status, it is usually a cliché. These stale phrases are used so frequently that their original meanings become diluted. Consequently, adopting an “in” dialect keeps people from creatively and precisely expressing their thoughts. It’s much better to choose words that resonate with people so they can clearly understand the point.

Besides the inherent inefficiencies, business speak can be hurtful and fray rather than unite a workforce. Analytical consultant Edgar Wilson offers several examples of inside jargon’s dark side in a HPPY article:

“Shrouding projects in obscure language might keep people from asking questions or lending unsolicited advice. Jargon and jibberish can make simple activities sound more complex or impressive and intimidate the uninitiated; many of us assume that to be fluent in the language of a specialty must indicate true expertise. It can even be used to make coded insults.”

How Meaningful Words Make a Difference

Language patterns take hold in every organization. But instead of leaning into catchy but ineffective buzzwords, business leaders should develop, model, and promote a more thoughtful vocabulary. And when they intentionally focus on words that set a productive and positive tone, they can deeply enhance their workplace culture.

Professor Vlatka Arianna Hlupic at Hult International Business School says creating this kind of lingo is part of conscious leadership and has many benefits. She details the topic in a recent Management.Issues article, where she shares her five-level framework designed to help executives develop more thoughtful leadership skills.

She explains, “Each level is characterized by specific patterns of thought, language used, behavior, leadership style, and organizational outcomes.”

Hlupic identifies individual and organizational ratings ranging from exceptional to poor. And she notes that a specific list of words is frequently heard in thriving organizations:

  • Caring
  • Collaborative
  • Enthusiastic
  • Purpose
  • Engaging
  • Fun
  • Empowering
  • Transparency
  • Integrity
  • Accountability

This vocabulary becomes widespread when leaders intentionally build a culture that these words describe. Hlupic writes:

“When organizations have an awareness of the language that is being utilized in their workplace, they can develop strategies to ensure staff feel supported, motivated and engaged.”

She notes that it is not uncommon for leaders to adopt these words into their core company values, but this tactic only works if those values are genuine, trackable, and measurable.

“This will ultimately lead to greater engagement among employees which would result in better organizational outcomes such as increased productivity, performance and profit.”

Creating a Purposeful Common Language

CultureWise founder and CEO David J. Friedman furthers Hlupic’s concept. He explains that the words framing a company’s culture must describe behaviors, not ideas. The above organizational characteristics can only develop if people’s conduct consistently supports them.

Friedman’s book, Culture by Design, outlines the process leaders should take to create a powerful shared vocabulary. First, they should identify behaviors that shape a strong, high-performing, unified team. Then they should clearly define these behaviors and consistently communicate them throughout the organization.

Friedman recommends that leaders articulate behaviors that make their teams more cohesive, responsive, and rooted in organizational goals. Unlike catchy buzzwords, the language he uses is specific and authentic. His examples of behaviors and their descriptions include:

  • Practice blameless problem-solving.
    Demonstrate a relentless solution focus, rather than pointing fingers or dwelling on problems. Identify lessons learned and use those lessons to improve ourselves and our processes so we don’t make the same mistake twice. Get smarter with every mistake. Learn from every experience.
  • Get clear on expectations.
    Create clarity and avoid misunderstandings by discussing expectations upfront. Set expectations for others and ask when you’re not clear on what they expect of you. End all meetings with clarity about action items, responsibilities, and due dates.
  • Show meaningful appreciation.
    Recognize people doing things right, rather than pointing out when they do things wrong. Regularly extend meaningful acknowledgment and appreciation — in all directions throughout our organization.

With effective coaching and practice, staff members will begin to use such terminology instead of empty buzzwords to address issues and share ideas. Their heightened communication awareness will make them better equipped to tackle obstacles and opportunities. And over time, this common language will strengthen the team and help perpetuate conduct that will distinguish the organization.

In addition, leaders will foster a sense of unity and membership when they intentionally build a positive and inspiring organizational language. An uplifting shared vocabulary helps form a community, which is especially crucial in binding and encouraging remote and hybrid teams.

Ultimately, a common language that motivates and supports employees may be the most effective way to unite the modern workforce. And it has the power to shape and sustain a vibrant organizational culture, which is the essence of every successful business.