The Upside of Office Jargon


Though much maligned, those eye-roll inducing words like “leverage” and “overarching” may actually help foster organizational unity.


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

T.S. Elliot’s words appropriately reflect an era when businesses and scholars began pondering the idea of organizational culture, ultimately spawning decades of ever-evolving corporate lingo.  Today’s conference rooms and hallways are filled with words like “transparency,”“stand-up meetings,”“bandwidth,” and many more.

But how did this happen?

After concepts to drive efficiency, like the assembly line, made their debut in car factories in the 1920’s, new human-based concepts began to emerge which tied productivity to management engagement and human relations.  With a set of productivity experiments at Hawthorne Works in the 1930s, Sociologist George Elton Mayo triggered a shift in how businesses thought of their workers – no longer as robots, but as parts to a large, complex social organism. This thought movement came at a perfect time, when the Great Depression brought alienation, strikes, and high turnover. It was from here that theories on corporate culture and language evolved.

In her article in The Atlantic, Emma Green attributes the birth of ‘office speak’ to employees feeling disconnected from their companies. During World War II when companies began to enlarge and become diversified conglomerates, businesses began to ask how they could get workers to feel good about their jobs and create an emotional atmosphere to generate profit.  Over the next few decades, academics continued to examine corporate culture concepts and eventually memorable buzzwords like “synergy” and “paradigm shift” were formed.

Green expounds further by breaking down professionals into groups known for commonly used lingo. From consulting groups who love the terms ‘restructure’ and ‘streamline’ to the finance folks who pontificate on ‘value adds’ and leveraging’ to the marketers who claim ‘personal branding’ and ‘mind sharing’ really do work, office speak is all around us, whether we like it or not.

Although some of us cannot resist but to roll our eyes at the sound of a buzzword, we have to recognize that “office language cements the corporate frame, the mental model that carries with it all kinds of beliefs,” as Liz Ryan suggests in Huffington Post. “We don’t have to talk and write like robots at work. We can talk about the culture around us like it’s a living thing, because it is. It’s the most important thing in the mix for us as working people and for our customers.” Even for those who mainly communicate via computer and cell phones, it is just as important to maintain a unified, human voice to your company. Minds create vision, but it is our words that ultimately bring that vision to life.