Corporate Jargon and Its Effect on Workplace Wellness

CoachHub · 2 November 2022 · 5 min read

Bored at work or in a meeting? Jargon generators and Bingo games are a popular way to pass the time. But if your company has gotten to the point where the corporate jargon dropped casually around the office is egregious enough to populate either one of them, it may be time to rethink the way you speak.

What is corporate jargon?

Everyone has their own list of corporate jargon phrases that make them cringe. No industry is immune. You’re probably going through your personal collection silently as you read this. In fact, that headline may have set your teeth on edge with its use of “workplace wellness” instead of “people.” Here are a few from today’s selection of randomly generated phrases on the site that’s dedicated to “brilliantly begetting benign buzzwords”: Envisioneer global eyeballs. Drive rich niches. Cultivate cross-platform paradigms.

Some corporate jargon—an expression whose meaning isn’t obvious to outsiders—has become so ubiquitous you may not even recognize it for what it is. Best of breed. Boil the ocean. Up periscope. End of life. We have business consultants to thank for much of it as they cast about for ways to set themselves apart. Business book authors put their fair share out there, too. Manufacturers looking for ways to sell new stuff when the old stuff is perfectly fine do it too. Then, of course, there are the people who simply cannot use an everyday word when something more tortured will do. Learnings instead of lessons. Ask instead of request. Conversed with telephonically instead of talked to. Truly, the list is endless.

Most people consider corporate buzzwords a benign annoyance that, at worst, induces eyerolls or inward shudders of distaste. But it can be more insidious. Used carelessly, corporate-speak can slow progress, stunt innovation, shut down teamwork and even cause emotional harm. That may seem like political correctness run amok, but let’s take a look at the effect corporate jargon can have on workplace wellness through the lens of a single phrase: “low-hanging fruit.”

corporate jargon

Corporate buzzwords: the problem with low-hanging fruit

As linguistic shortcuts, corporate jargon phrases make a lot of assumptions. “Low-hanging fruit,” for example, is ripe with innuendo. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the obvious or easy things that can be most readily done or dealt with.” But that definition begs a lot of questions. If it’s easy, why hasn’t someone done something about it? If it’s obvious, why has it been ignored? If one person thinks it’s easy or obvious and another doesn’t, what does that suggest?

None of the implications are good. Among the possibilities:

  • Elitism – The last person in charge didn’t tackle it because they were above that type of “easy” work. 
  • Poor HR practices – People didn’t recognize the “obvious” because there was a mismatch between their expertise and the role they were assigned.
  • Lack of autonomy – Someone knew how to fix it but didn’t have the authority to do so.
  • Disengagement – Someone knew how to fix it but was so disgruntled they didn’t want to.
  • Malaise – It wasn’t taken care of it because it was someone else’s job. 
  • Overwork – Picking that fruit would’ve impacted a lot of other things and no one wanted to deal with it.
  • Underestimating the problem – It’s been said that the farther away you are from the fruit, the lower it looks.
  • Tribalism – Your low-hanging fruit isn’t my low-hanging fruit, so where does that leave me?
  • Language barrier – If you’re not a native English speaker, what does the term “low-hanging fruit” mean, anyway? And if you work at Apple, BlackBerry or Orange Theory?

So there the fruit stays. Seemingly easy pickings, but hanging low, nonetheless. Conversely, all the low-hanging fruit gets picked but the overarching issue never gets addressed once all the “quick wins” are gone because people lose interest, the budget gets cut, new issues… Squirrel!

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The research on corporate-speak: language can unify, but it can also isolate

Using verbal shorthand isn’t bad in and of itself, provided everyone hearing or reading it understands what’s being communicated. Jargon can help people in a tight-knit team work faster by consolidating complex ideas into shorter, mutually understood expressions. Still, there are almost always more straightforward words that can be chosen in place of corporate buzzwords. One reason why you should bother: studies have shown that even within the same field, jargon varies between groups because people bring their own way of speaking and understanding to the teams they work within. Outside the group, miscommunication lurks.

Like swear words, corporate jargon words are tempting, but they lack a certain eloquence. Why? Because people are more concerned about sounding like the in-crowd than getting their point across clearly. Research has shown that low status increase the use of jargon. That may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. The researchers noted that, “Outsiders observing others’ use of jargon are reminded that they do not belong, or perhaps do not have the right stuff to belong. Outsider reactions to insider jargon range from anger at presumptuous exclusion, to depression about being unworthy.” Yikes. That alone speaks volumes to the damaging effect corporate buzzwords can have on workplace wellness.

There is also the risk of uttering a remark that seems inconsequential but reeks of racism, sexism and other noxious “-isms.” “Open the kimono,” which in corporate-speak means something like “let us see what’s happening inside the company,” is one such phrase. So is the “master/slave” relationship commonly used by technology engineers to describe causal relationships between devices, controls and processes. “Grandfathered in” originated during Reconstruction as a way to disenfranchise voters. And corporations are rife with military terms such as “rally the troops” and “chain of command” that put people in their place, literally and figuratively.  When words matter—and they always matter—such corporate jargon contributes to a culture in which a leadership advantage is conferred to some but not others.

Coaching amplifies self-awareness and helps eradicate corporate jargon

Eliminating jargon isn’t easy. It’s so commonplace that we may not even realize the phrase we’re using is corporate-speak, much less where it originated from. Digital coaching by professionals with deep knowledge of corporate culture can help people become aware of the words and phrases they’re using and find alternatives that still feel natural. They can educate people about the origin of expressions and why such language can be offensive to others. They can teach teams when to use jargon to get things done, and when to stop because it hinders clarity. They can help people advance their careers and champion others despite cultures built on words that limit opportunity.

Every organization has a culture, and every culture has its own way of communicating. Cutting down on the use of unnecessary corporate jargon can improve even the most high-functioning cultures by improving clarity and workplace wellbeing.

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