The problems of corporate vocabulary

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I’ve written about issues with work vocabulary twice before. The first time, way back in the day, was about holacracy, or flat management. The second time, much more recently, was more broadly about issues of corporate speak.

It honestly surprised me that I’ve only written about this twice, because it’s a huge, huge issues in workplaces, and it’s not covered nearly enough by people who write about business/future of work stuff.

Let’s actually begin with a recent article from UPenn. The title of the article is complete bullshit: “How Big Companies Can Innovate Like Small Startups,” with the answer to that idea being “lots of prayer.” But there’s some good kernels of truth in said article.

What are those kernels of truth?

The term ‘innovation’ is sort of everywhere and people talk about it. One of the problems that companies run into is that the term sounds good, it means something good, but it means kind of everything. As a result, it means nothing.

That’s one pull quote. Nice. I call that “suitcase words.” They carry everything and nothing simultaneously.

Now I want you to look at the next section of the article following that quote:

Everybody in the organization has a different view. One of the first steps for senior leaders is to start to define the types of innovation and their choices, and to think about the different ways they’re going to allocate resources to those. Just being explicit about the difference between, say, routine innovation versus radical innovation versus disruptive innovation versus architectural innovation.

This is a tough specific example, because “innovation” has been so co-opted by things that aren’t even remotely innovative — i.e. “I updated a spreadsheet today, behold my innovative mindset!” — that it’s pretty far gone as a business concept.

But the first part of that second quote is important. The author says that “senior leaders {should} start to define the types…”

And how do senior leaders define anything?

In terms of money. And why wouldn’t they? They talk about money more than any other level for a for-profit company. They can benefit the most from bonuses, which are super tied to money (uh, they are money) as well. As you rise up in a place, it’s all you want to discuss, and all anyone pulls you into meetings about. “Strategic plays” related to money, etc. “Innovative projects” that are just digging for nickels in the couch cushions of an industry.

Why is this an issue? Isn’t the goal to make money?

Sure, that is the goal. So on face, it’s not an issue that making money is all senior people discuss.

Here’s where it becomes an issue. Down the chain, you don’t have as much connection to money. You can’t make as much in salary, or perks, or bonuses. You tend to care more about tasks because the tasks more directly impact your existence. (Tasks and quality of the people around you, obviously.)

When the upper ranks are mostly discussing money but that’s not an easy idea for the middle and lower ranks to access, that creates a disconnect.

That disconnect can fuel resentment around the idea that all the stuff about “innovative ideas” coming from on-high is lip service. Obviously the focus is money. Just say that.

This disconnect around true priorities and the vocabulary used to couch those priorities creates a lot of issues in workplaces. We just tend not to discuss those issues, choosing instead to say how AI will change everything. Got it.

The salary vs. revenue context

I once had this gig and they did a survey about “what is important to us.” (The employees.)

As you might guess, a lot of people said salary, or opportunity to make more salary, etc.

So this guy presents at a staff meeting and discusses the results.

Watch this pivot that’s about to happen.

He says “Most of you wanted to have more opportunities at a better salary…”

… trails off briefly, and then says …

“… as you know, we are growing revenue year-to-year, so …”

Do you know what’s wrong with this sentence?

If the company had already been growing revenue but the employees were mentioning lack of salary opportunity on surveys, then, well…

There is no tie between “revenue is growing” and “that fact impacting the salaries of employees.

But again, that was a seamless vocabulary pivot and I give the dude all the credit in the world.

In reality, this is what that meeting meant →

“We hear you on salaries, guys, but as we make more, more is going to the top.”

So there are almost two disconnects here now →

  • The vocabulary is one disconnect
  • The double talk/watch the other hand stuff is a second disconnect

That’s a tough world for employees to get ahead in, or at least make more money within. That’s why job-hopping got popular; it’s the only way to make more money, oftentimes. The whole way we structure the system would never allow for employee loyalty. It’s just kind of a question, again, of how much we realize that.

So could we get better at all this?

At functional workplaces? Yes. At most places? No.

Being an executive is like being a magician. It’s as much sleight of hand and keeping minions and middle managers at bay as it is actually driving any growth and innovation outside of the same accidental luck business model you’ve been using for 10+ years.

Will vocabulary ever change? Will people realize words that mean everything also mean nothing? Doubtful. But we can at least acknowledge that it’s happening more and more.

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