I’ve discussed ‘corporate speak’ before- management language which is usually impenetrable to people outside the organisation (and-to a large extent-those within the corporate sphere too). It has buzzwords like ‘stakeholder-oriented’ and ‘leveraging synergies’ and it finds endless inventive ways of using the word ‘paradigm’.
It is occasionally infuriating but quite fascinating nonetheless. It reminds me of a joke I saw in a comic strip many years ago ‘Maybe one day we can make language a complete impediment to communication.’
But while we now take this baffling form of expression for granted, it still leaves the question: why is it so prevalent? After all there are clear drawbacks to this. In a corporate environment, the ability to convey information speedily and accurately is very important. Without it, targets and results can get lost in a hazy mist of uncertainty.
In this context, corporate speak becomes an impediment to corporate success. This situation is brilliantly captured in Scott Adam’s comic strip ‘Dilbert.’ As you can imagine, corporate speak is very ripe for satire.
And such language can convey the wrong message to those further down the hierarchy, giving them the impression that their corporate-or public institution- overlords don’t know exactly what they are doing. This is evidently not the kind of signals that management would want to send further down the chain.
Effective authority must be maintained in any organization and language is one of the crucial ways of doing this. And yet from many angles, this would appear to be an inefficient use of language.
But are there benefits to this approach? An interesting theory I stumbled across recently suggests the answer is yes. Tyler Cowen- a high-profile economist and blogger- believes that corporate speak can be used to mask conflict within an organisation.
It becomes a conflict-preventive device because people’s varying opinions become incorporated into the fuzzy nature of corporate speak. The lack of clarity becomes useful within the organization because it portrays the company as taking in a variety of viewpoints.
The flipside to this would be that straight talk can breed conflict and challenge authority. However, corporate speak goes around this by turning uncertainty into a unifying and morale-boosting strategy. There is some twisted truth to this although some conclusions you can draw from this have a strong element of absurd humour.
After all, one reason people within any organization are unlikely to grow resentful when faced with corporate speak is that they are unlikely to fully understand what is being put forward. Dissent and resentment is hard when faced with such a rapidly moving and slippery target.
A contributor to that discussion had a more chilling spin-off of that idea: the theory was that corporate speak is simply misinformation used as a weapon by those higher in the hierarchy to keep the rest disoriented. Corporate speak then becomes a form of low-level warfare within the organization itself.
Whether corporate speak has more drawbacks than advantages is a debate that will rage on, but it is interesting to see how this intersection between internal corporate politics and language manifests itself.
There are wider dimensions to this- for example how does corporate speak plays out in the wider world, beyond the narrow realities of the corporate world. However that is a debate for another day.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer