Why so much BS in the corporate world?

by on September 2, 2010 at 5:58 am in Economics | Permalink

Chris, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Why does the corporate world use language so inefficiently? Why turn a simple thing like "talking to a client about their needs" into a five-step process (distinguished, no doubt, by an acronym)? Do companies think that they create net value when they brand a common thing like human conversation as a one-of-a-kind, complex process – even after the costs of being opaque, jargonistic, and long-winded are taken into account?

I assume that a large proportion of people become cynical at the sound of corporate-speak. Is it reasonable to expect that language in the business world will become more transparent and down-to-earth in the future? Or do you expect that corporate-speak will continue to serve the (perceived) need to brand the commonplace or to affect a marketable expertise – clarity, concision, and common sense be damned?

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone's opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.  

Many morale-improving corporate practices are precisely what people perceive as somewhat demoralizing, such as fluffy rhetoric, forced socializing, and a somewhat egalitarian bonus structure.  Rule of thumb: when you see the demoralizing, start with the premise that it is being done for morale.

Real "straight talk" very often is not compatible with authority, as it breeds conflict.  Do political leaders give us much real straight talk?  Do CEOs in their public addresses?

When direct financial incentives can work well, such as in sales (bonuses) or in some parts of finance, there is much more straight talk.  Disagreement and candor can flourish, because the $$ keep the workers on a common track.

My lunch group has a high level of trust and we are at little risk of a morale breakdown and thus we speak very directly with each other with a minimum of fluff or BS.  

Andrew September 2, 2010 at 6:28 am

What you call morale I call misinformation. Your lunch group isn’t competing for the next promotion to the degree corporates do. There is a theory that claims it is dissembling. This is why corporate rules are also so impenetrable. Keep the underlings uninformed and the competition off balance. Keep everyone showing up every day vaguely uninformed, yet not completely pissed. The absolute level of confusion in academia is worse, but (& because) you guys don’t really have to coordinate with anyone compared to business. The relative level is much higher there compared to how important information is. Corporates don’t have the publishing system to bypass corporate information hierarchy. I saw one relevant white paper in my 5 years. I cherished that think like The Shroud of Turin.

Employee surveys where I worked constantly cited “management does not communicate with us” at the top of the complaints (why did they even do these surveys?). The saying goes that mushrooms are kept in the dark and fed bull manure. Also, higher-ups don’t really know what’s going on, but they have to signal that they have it under control. The best way to do this is to have employees believe they don’t know something when in actuality, noone else knows either. Corporates are like politicians except they understand that they don’t really DO anything. Blathering is a higher status way of not screwing things up than self-deprecation. Consistency keeps the game stable so they can focus on the zero-sum aspects of competing with their peers. It’s actually less than zero sum. We had a plant where the plant manager fired a large swath of management after noticing that productivity went down during day shift (now you see why I think Trunk is crazy!).

dearieme September 2, 2010 at 6:53 am

But some of it is to do with lack of self-awareness, isn’t it – a general cloth-earedness? How else to explain the snort-inducing “c-suite” or “c-level” executives?

jay baldwin September 2, 2010 at 7:17 am

Communication researchers call what Tyler describes as “strategic ambiguity”

Christian September 2, 2010 at 7:21 am

What does “BS” stand for?

libfree September 2, 2010 at 7:45 am

I understand the general sentiment of the question but I’ve been through some of these exercises in my time and I’ve become a fan of the “Corporate Talk”. Corporations have employee’s in different states and countries. They have employees from all over the world and those people belong to different age and ethnic groups. Finding a simple language to communicate the same idea and have them implement that idea the same way everytime is very hard to do. Assuming that people understand a simple idea can be naive. When the CEO says that he wants you to talk to the customer courteously, he shouldn’t assume that a 17 year old clerk understands what that means. Not to mention that the 17 year old might be black, hispanic, white or korean even if they are working in the US. Tyler’s lunch group shares a common language and doesn’t need such precision. Not to mention, in a small group it’s easy to fix ambiguity quickly. Think of how long the chain of clarification can be in a large corporation.

mike September 2, 2010 at 7:51 am

To clarify, “failures in the past” such as thinking your client wants X, doing a great job of providing high quality X, only to discover that they actually wanted Y, and there was a breakdown in communication. Now you have this wonderful X that you’d gladly exchange for money, but the people with the money are only willing to give it to you in exchange for Y. Lesson learned: “We need to do this better next time.” Let’s figure out how to avoid this and then write it down so nobody else screws it up.

TracyW September 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

I’m with Mike on this one. I’ve so often heard things called jargon, or BS, when actually they’re meeting a specific need. For example, once I took a clear writing course with a bunch of other people with an economics background. It was a good course, but at one point the instructor advised us to avoid jargon, and gave the example of “asymmetric information”. “Why not just say “don’t know”?” she asked rhetorically. We all replied, in our various ways “But asymmetric information is where one party knows something and the other doesn’t, it’s not just when someone doesn’t know”.

I took the same course with the same instructor again a few years later. Still good, but the instructor was a lot less dogmatic about avoiding jargon.

andy September 2, 2010 at 8:35 am

“Why does the corporate world use language so inefficiently? Why turn a simple thing like “talking to a client about their needs” into a five-step process (distinguished, no doubt, by an acronym)?”

You would wonder how many sales people have no idea how to sell….

Michael Foody September 2, 2010 at 8:48 am

One of the most enlightening experiences was reading a university level business management textbook. I was amazed at how much effort went into obscuring the obvious. Accounting, finance, and operational psychology all have useful and non-intuitive applications but really that seems to be in the minority. And if you want to get even dumber read any popular book on business, there is nothing closer to a children’s book I’ve encountered (and I’m not referring to who moved my cheese).

Chris September 2, 2010 at 8:59 am

Thanks for your thoughts, Tyler (and commenters), which are particularly interesting because I was speculating about it in the opposite direction: that corporate language was used to create barriers of expertise, rather than fostering corporate unity. I assumed there was an incentive to create a perceived expertise by using jargon and pseudo-scientific concepts like “managing by walking around”, so that a company’s value might appear higher to a customer, or an employee’s value might appear higher to the rest of the company. Student papers (and some faculty papers) that use fluff to create a false sense of expertise would be analogous.

I’ve never thought about it in terms of conflict avoidance and coping with low levels of trust. Interesting.

Err September 2, 2010 at 9:19 am

To me the corporate speak makes me think about the way modern companies approach variation in ability. Most companies put together official and unofficial norms and processes to smooth out the difference in abilities. This can hamper truly competent people but it limits the impact of less competent people and whatever damage they can do. If you delineate every process step you may get less variation. Some companies, like Netflix, specifically reject this model of business and constantly search for high performers. However that takes a conscious decision to fire even adequate employees and spend alot of money in HR looking for the best employees.

In my current org (large SI) has a massive churn rate and hires people often on a project basis. For long term positions there is much more freedom but they decided to use an up or out model to cultivate their best performers.

I think there is value in both approaches but it is easier to straight-jacket the employees you find than go out and compete for the best performers.

Laserlight September 2, 2010 at 9:57 am

1) if you’ve been around long enough to know the jargon, presumably you also know how to do your job.

2) many people simply do not know what they think and fumble around trying to grasp a concept. Jargon may work as a pre-packaged thought, so to speak–the equivalent of saying “I’ll have the Number 6″ instead of “I’ll have a hamburger, make that two patties, American cheese, iceburg lettuce” and so on; the latter is certainly more clear but takes more thought.

Chris September 2, 2010 at 10:06 am

TracyW, I think you’re right, “management by walking around” is a straightforward enough phrase on its own. What I find amusing is the way that many business students and some actual managers take the notion interacting with your subordinates, which any semi-thoughtful person would do, and make it into a scientific-like system like this:

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/management-by-walking-around-MBWA.html

If managers spent more time considering how to be thoughtful people, and less time memorizing business school acronyms like MBWA, I think language in the workplace would be more sincere and down-to-earth, less like something out of a badly written textbook.

Also, saying “I have an MBWA philosophy of management” is probably a more effective signal of expertise than “I try to be a thoughtful manager.” Which is the better interview response?

anonymous September 2, 2010 at 11:00 am

Real “straight talk” is not compatible with authority? Nonsense. Being “on the record” is the problem.

When given a credible promise that their remarks are off the record, leaders can be startlingly frank and direct.

We live in a world where nothing a CEO or political leader says on the record is ever forgotten, where any innocuous off-the-cuff remark can be turned against you. Consider BP CEO Tony Hayward’s remark about wanting his life back. You could go all the way back to 1968 when the first Romney to take a run at the presidency was derailed by a single stray remark about “brainwashing”.

What’s worse, we’re moving to a world where everything and everyone is always “on the record”. A world of Facebook and camera phones and CCTV surveillance cameras and YouTube, where all your e-mails and text chats and “wall” postings live forever, where hostile lawyers have carte blanche to do “discovery” trawls through years’ worth of past communications and take anything out of context.

We are all joining the CEOs and politicians in the same great big fishbowl. Within a generation, ambitious parents will probably start hiring image consultants for their children, to teach them how to construct a bland public persona. Facebook postings might be outsourced and ghostwritten in India.

Perhaps this is the natural state of the human race, where historically we all lived in small tribes and village groups of no more than 150 individuals or so, and no one was a stranger and everyone knew about everyone else’s business.

Maybe the age of privacy and anonymity, as emergent properties of urban living, was just a long interlude. The metaphor of a “global village” was likely even more apt than McLuhan intended.

raja_r September 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

Why do musicians, cricketers, $some_ethnic_group, artists, economists, engineers, etc speak differently?

Every sub-culture has their own way of speaking that makes sense to them.

syntaxfree September 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm

The paper trail.

The more informal communication gets, the more its interpretation when the going gets tough hinges on the strength of personalities and the value of their long-term relationship. Repeatable methods buy insurance against communications breakdown.

Gabriel Rossman September 2, 2010 at 1:37 pm

there’s a huge literature (as in thousands of publications) on this issue in organizational behavior / economic sociology called “neo-institutionalism.” the three core concepts are legitimacy, decoupling, and isomorphism. legitimacy is you do what people expect of you, isomorphism is a variety of mechanisms through which legitimacy is achieved/enforced, and decoupling is how to a certain extent you just pay lip service to this crap so you can get some work done.
here are the two seminal cites for this literature
http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/2778293
http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/2095101

drawntoanalogy September 2, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Lately I’ve been thinking of the parallels to religion. Much of what’s entered into corporate vogue – use of jargon in consensus-building, emphasis on corporate values, and so on – seems similar to what you’d encounter when you sit through any church service. Combine this with a trend to dismantle the professional/personal barrier, and you could even speculate that many corporations are (unconsciously) trying to fill the gap where churches used to sit.

Mike September 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Same reason for “Politics and the English Language.”

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

Jon September 2, 2010 at 2:31 pm

My pet theory is it that it’s because businesses are structured as hierarchical courts, not unlike royal ones. Talking honestly is a worse strategy than brownnosing and flattery.

Plus, like royal courts, business ones are mediocre at picking leaders – choosing from the best-born and best-connected rather the actual best. And, leaders tend to live in fear of being outperformed and replaced by somebody good you promote. And, it’s in middle managers’ interests to keep their best working for them rather than promoting them. And, the mediocre communicate medicorely.

I had a vision of your lunch group talking: “Wrong, Cowen.” “No – YOU’re wrong, and I’m right”. “You’re both so, so wrong.” :-)

Peter September 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm

@Christian: BS means bullshit, which is what “business speak” is in politically correct terms.

@ Indy and Steve:

What military are you working in? Go sit on on some CC/S/A flag staff meetings full of senior staff officers jocking to make their flag look good and get promoted into the good old boy club. It’s nothing but drivel, BS, and make everybody happy speak. You want to hear BS, go listen to a FISMA compliance conversation between lets say the JTF-GNO Cmdr, the DISA Cmdr, DoD CIO, DoD Deputy AA, and some offending CC/S/A J6 actual. (or for that matter, sit in on a “impartial” court-marshal panel where their is political or higher pressure to fry the guy at the lowest level as hard as possible while immunizing everybody above him). Ditto at the lower levels also .. candor may not get you fired in the military but it damn well will kill your promotion to senior levels. Make happy fluff generalization in the military is called MWR, safety first programs, the entire IG program, FWA, suicide prevent programs, etc etc. Sorry to tell you both but BS is more rampant in both DoD and the rest of the government by far than the private sector.

Vic Sarjoo September 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm

As corporations become more wealthy and successful, they tend to innovate less in the course of solving their problems. When problems are solved with cash and staff instead of innovation, then layers of management and procedure must accumulate to manage this staff. If resources are abundant and leadership not abundant, then creation of additional committees and departments and rules and procedures will be the norm.

Alhough not a for-profit corporation the U.N. is a great example of the product of high resources and low leadership.

An unusual but notable example of high leadership and low resources (a startup mentality) at a big iconic corporation is IBM’s skunkworks in Florida where the PC was created.

When one reads the history of the creation of the PC, one finds there is very little corporate-speak among the prime movers.

R. Richard Schweitzer September 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm

There are probably at least two determining elements:

We are looking at “expressions” (not all aimed at communication) within the context of larger scale, hierarchically structured organizations of practically all types (not just “business organizations.”)

The contexts frame the motivations for choices (and capacities) of expressions to various objectives, such as seeking or avoiding individual identity in the larger group, game-playing, response explorations, etc., etc. as well as the expected efforts to communicate thought.

Gabriel Rossman September 2, 2010 at 5:35 pm

przemek,

>>the three core concepts are legitimacy, decoupling,
>>and isomorphism. legitimacy is you do what people
>>expect of you.
>Yes, but the question is why do people expect you to
>do that and not something else.

my answer is to see the very next clause of the same sentence you originally quoted, which continues:
“isomorphism is a variety of mechanisms through which legitimacy is achieved/enforced”

as to why isomorphic mechanisms choose certain practices and not others (eg, why “ISO 9000″ certification? or “diversity management”? or “core competencies?”), there can’t possibly be a one-size-fits all answer to this, or to put it another way, there’s a lot of idiosyncrasy and path dependency. for instance, if a firm that does X becomes very successful, you’ll see lots of people doing X and to the extent that X is orthogonal to the firm’s success then this process (“mimetic isomorphism”) is stochastic. on the other hand, some aspects are systematic and structural; for instance there are issues of bureaucratic politics involving various ideologies of professionalism (“normative isomorphism”).

Troy Camplin September 3, 2010 at 2:59 am

If I am hired as a consultant, which is going to get me paid more:

“An increase in kinesthetics improves cognition, with a concomitant increase in creativity and productivity.”

or

“If you let people walk around a bit, they can think better, and that will help them be more creative and productive.”

The first one makes me sounds like a genius who should get paid big bucks for my brilliant insights; the second one make you sound like an idiot for not figuring that out on your own.

Seo Guru September 3, 2010 at 6:30 am

Talking indirectly is an art that had been mastered by CEOs and politicians. They had mastered it to the fullest to conceal that they know little of the subject they are talking. What a bunch of jerks I should say.

Doug Winter September 4, 2010 at 3:22 am

Many of the posts here are extremely sceptical, as if everyone who works in corporations is basically an idiot, and they could barely find their arses with both hands. If only these blog commenters were on hand to provide them with some common sense!

Here’s a tip: if you find yourself thinking that huge groups of people *must* be fools, because what other possible reason could there be for acting in the way they do, it’s likely you just do not understand their incentives.

Conflict in a smaller business can be very useful, because it can resolve crucial issues. In our business there will always be a solution to the conflict, in the end it comes to the level of the owner/managers and we’ll fight it out, and finally resolve it, because we have no other option.

In a corporation there is often no resolution to the inherent conflict between parties. There is often little incentive for people to cooperate with you in achieving your goals, and often their interests are directly in conflict with yours. And yet, you still need to achieve your goals – you can’t just go to your boss and whine that nobody will help. People working in corporations are in a much lonelier and more difficult position than you may realise.

A parallel is the diplomatic service – diplomats often have to deal with people from other states who are largely inimical to them. They have very specialised language to try to achieve their narrow aims, whilst working with people who have little incentive to cooperate.

So I think Tyler is a little wrong here to bring ‘trust’ into the mix – Tyler’s lunch group may have a high level of trust – but I also suspect their interests do not conflict.

I have a very high level of trust of my wife, and yet I often have to use diplomatic language when I know our interests are going to conflict ;)

Ultra finally, the comparison above of “We provide rational supply-chain solutions” vs “We use trucks to carry your stuff around” is just clueless. The value-add in supply-chain management, which is where you *COMPETE*, and so where you advertise to your actual *CUSTOMER*, is not in the truck-driving it’s in the other parts of supply-chain management.

Those messages are not for *YOU* they are for the *PERSON WHO IS INVOLVED IN A BUYING DECISION*. That you think they are bullshit is neither interesting or relevant. Welcome to capitalism!

JohninJax September 4, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I agree with Troy’s comment above. My theory is that a lot of jargon and MBA-speak works its way into conversation as a way of signalling one’s intelligence and sophistication (or thinking that you are !). My friends and I have watched and listened with both hilarity and despair as presenters load their discussion with vague word clouds that everyone pretends to understand. More sinister, I think, are the smaller turns of phrase. At our workplace, for instance, a trend emerged a few months ago of using the word “ask” as a noun, as in “Thats a big ask.” Perhaps I am in a Sienfeld rerun.

What is ironic is that the leaders I’ve seen who are most respected are not those who avoid jargon completely, but that say things as simply as possible…but no simpler. Using technical terms that are appropriate for the audience is fine. They also tend to be the ones that call bulls*** and ask “what does THAT mean ?” Its usually a relief to all…

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