An updated guide to business speak:
It probably started in the eighties with the yuppies, they might be an easy target but Im going to blame them anyway as they deserve it. Im talking about the obsession in business to take regular words from the English language and abuse them into some entirely new, nonsensical, meaning. It would be equally easy to blame the Americans, but you cant really blame them for trying to impose their personality on our shared language. No, this is a problem for business and the increasing need to bamboozle customers and avoid blame.
Now at this point you may well be glazing over and anticipating a tired rehash of things being run up flag poles or put on back burners or even, heaven forbid, chaps looking to see if they have a window. But no, if those phrases ever had any currency beyond satire it was before my time and Ive never heard them used in any serious business situation. The words and phrases Im going to present are all in current use and are said in all seriousness by people Im forced to work with on a daily basis. If there are any you havent heard before, fear not: theyll be coming to a manager near you soon.
To give you some context, Im a freelancer working in IT Project Management. This is an environment where success and (more likely) failure is glaringly obvious. Where people are required to take responsibility for very specific activities and are therefore forced to become very creative when explaining their repeated failures to deliver anything of value. In my current assignment, where many of these phrases come from, there are, it has to be said, a significant number of consultants from the States but theyre by no means the worst culprits. There are also a significant number of women in the team, at all levels of management, but for some reason they have chosen not to buy into this new lexicon of business meaning that this is largely a male driven phenomenon. Shame on us.
So, with a nod towards Ambrose Bierce, the godfather of the misappropriation of words, please find below the Devils Dictionary for Business.
This is a current favourite and is guaranteed to get an airing at virtually every meeting. Typically macho, it is often used to reinforce someones planned activity, in order to sidestep any accusation of lack of effort. Examples could include we need to robustly challenge their existing behaviour. So were not only going to tell them off, were going to sternly tell them off then. Another example would be Ive put together a robust plan of action meaning not only have I thought about it, but Ive really thought about it and I cant think about it any more. The only reason to use this word is to show everyone that youre one tough hombre and will not stand for any nonsense. Obviously it doesnt mean anything of the sort, but when your robust plans come to nought at least youve given the impression that you did everything you could.
This is a strange one, as Ive only ever heard one person use it. The context is to share information or maybe, as we say in business, cascade. My current Director of Engineering is absolutely in love with this word and at every meeting will use it at least twice. An example would be: Ive had an idea about how we should be doing something and Im going to socialise it around the team. What?? I first heard it only a couple of weeks ago and it really threw me, it wasnt until the third or fourth time that I thought I knew what he was saying. I also think he some kind of exclusivity rule about it as I havent heard anyone else use it yet, I have been tempted but so far havent had the guts in case he thinks Im taking the mickey. Which I would be.
Take One for the Team~
This one has a long association with sport and pretty much means to put yourself in a position to get hurt for the benefit of the team as a whole. Stupid idea.
Anyway, this was a favourite of our previous Director of Engineering when he was handing out really crap assignments. Hed say something like: I need you to tell five of your team that their contracts have been terminated. I know its a tough call but I really need you to take one for the team on this one. As if by saying that it turned it into some kind of noble act rather than making you the most hated person in the building.
Theres no hiding with this one, it is definitely one for our American cousins. An English accent just cant carry it off. We probably need to thank the leader of the free world for this (pick any since Reagan) and it is a way of being down home and chummy. Its usually used to set an inclusive, were all in this together tone to any presentation. An example would be when a speaker says: Folks, were all gonna have to work a lot harder if were gonna see this through. The knock on from this is the warning bells that ring when they swap the word Folks for People because then you know youre in for a shellacking and that sentence becomes: People, you need to work a lot harder if youre gonna get this done. Not quite so inclusive.
This is definitely a civil service one, and was a clear favourite of some of the more senior (ie older) staff when I was working for a large metropolitan law enforcement agency, I couldnt possibly name names. It is a clubby, chummy way of getting out of doing something tricky: Id really like to help you with that (really nasty activity), but Im afraid its just not within my bailiwick followed by a matey chuckle. This is actually the correct use of the word, but it is so out of favour in the general lexicon that it has to go down as management speak.
I like this one. This will be used in a situation where you need to get someone in another department, over whom you have no authority, to do something onerous for you, usually to clear up some mess youve made. When they, quite sensibly, decline to help you can then report to your boss that theyve got slopey shoulders. This has the effect of casting them as evasive non-team players rather than exposing the lack of influencing skills that you so proudly claimed you possessed in your CV. Ive used this one several times and it works a treat as theres nothing better than being able to blame someone else.
This is a nasty one. Busy work usually means effort that doesnt produce anything of value, compiling reports or analyses that no one will read for example. When your boss says it, however, it means absolutely any work youre doing that doesnt immediately benefit him: I dont want you doing busy work when I need to get this out by close of play today thereby consigning everything youve done for the last six months to dustbin of pointlessness.
Blood on the Carpet~
The ultimate macho statement in current use. You really need to fancy yourself to carry this one off; needless to say Ive never tried it. An example would be when someone has been asked to challenge a suppliers performance. Having failed miserably to achieve any progress they will then report back on their robust efforts: I made them fully aware of my concerns over their performance, but I didnt leave any blood on the carpet leaving unsaid that they could have done if theyd wanted to. Utter nonsense.
Having said that, the last person I heard say it was someone who actually looks capable of doing it and that leads on to another sub-category: changing job titles. This person likes to call himself a Facilitator; I think they used to be called hatchet men.
This one is pretty harmless but has spread like wildfire through our team. It means to pass something on without putting any time or effort into it: You know I saw that paper from Dept X, but honestly Im so overloaded I just shotgunned it straight to Dept Y. The jocularity of the phrase distracting the listener from the fact that he has completely failed to do his job. Not surprisingly, this was started by an American but everybody says it now.
Cocks on the Block Time~
Apologies for the crudeness of this one, but it is genuine. A real finger pointing, table thumping phrase that is dragged out when all else has failed: Weve really got to deliver on this one. Its cocks on the block time! There is a strange chivalry around this one as I have never heard it used when there are ladies in a meeting but Im sure its happened. I couldnt keep a straight face if I tried to say it but trust me, it gets bandied around a lot.
Put Something in my Diary~
This is easily the best phrase ever coined. The advent of office e-mail systems is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it means that you are always contactable and others can book your time willy-nilly (this is bad). On the other, it opens a whole new world of shirking that just wasnt possible 20 years ago (this is good). A perfect example is when youve been asked to approach someone to get something done and you just dont fancy it. The get-out here is to send them an e-mail in the full knowledge that itll be ignored out of hand. When challenged you can honestly say that you were proactive and sent them an e-mail and are perfectly entitled to accuse them of having slopey shoulders beautiful. Another example is when your boss wants a meeting so that you can explain why youve missed your last six deadlines. If youre quick enough to beat them to the punch you can say: No problem, just put something in my diary and Id be happy to go through it with you. This can be said with full confidence that (a) hes far too busy and important to remember to arrange a meeting with a drone like you, and (b) you are now completely off the hook forever. The only problem is if his over-eager PA is in attendance because they will remember, and then you will need to come up with a robust reason for your abject failures.
Oh dear, another get out phrase that gets thrown around far too much for my liking. This will be used when one person is trying to avoid doing something and either get out of it completely or dump it on you: This piece of work has come my way but I just dont have the bandwidth to take it on. A clear case of obfuscating this gives the impression that the person saying it is incredibly busy, and not just with busy work mind, and any more work will cause them to fall over with exhaustion. You, on the other hand, obviously have plenty of available bandwidth. Like robust this is something of a trump card and is very hard to challenge.
Im going a little off message here as this is not so much business speak but government speak and is symptomatic of New Labour. You must have noticed how this government never actually spend money any more. No, they invest. So when the chancellor rolls out the latest budget plans he spouts off about how hes going to invest X billion pounds in the health / education / police services. Now correct me if Im wrong but investing money is a way of prudently using the money you have now to get more money back sometime in the future not flushing it down the toilet that is this countrys public sector. Ooh, a little bit of politics there.
This is a bit different as its a word that used to mean something but has now fallen out of use. Do you remember when people used to have careers? Well maybe you do, but I dont. Apparently you would join some company that had a clear hierarchical structure and you could plan your career accordingly; you could see the job you wanted to get in two years, five years or twenty years confident that it would still be there when the time came. Nowadays any company of at least national size will have so many reorganisations and reshuffles that it is impossible to know what jobs will be there in the future, let alone make any plans to get them. Im only a freelancer but in the 12 months Ive been in my current role Ive had three job titles, had my team renamed four times and Im on my third boss, each one claiming a different job title for themselves and Im still doing the same job I did when I started. I see people dancing around doing different jobs on a monthly basis and its impossible to tell if theyve been promoted, demoted or side-lined. I guess thats just the modern world of work.
Im going to stop there as I can see this descending into a very poor stand-up routine and that was not my intention. Im sure there are plenty more that Ive missed or havent encountered yet but perhaps someone else would like to pick up the baton and carry on, or maybe we should take that off-line.
All the best