When my grandfather first started work, he used to wear a full morning suit and hat. He and his colleagues sat in ordered rows of large school desks, in a cathedral-like silence, broken only by the scratching of pens. There was no room for humour or lightness: work was a serious business.
When they addressed each other, it was done with whispered formality – ‘Mister Smith’ or ‘Miss Jones’. First names were superfluous. Letters would follow prescribed patterns: ‘We are in receipt of your correspondence of the 6th inst.’, ‘In anticipation of your favourable response, we remain etc.’
The office he worked in is still there: an imposing building beside the river in London. People go to work there in jeans now. They sit on communal designer sofas, sipping lattes, having power meetings and firing off emails to their boss that start ‘Hi Liz’ and finish with a smiley face. They update their Twitter feed on the train in and they take their blackberries on holiday, so they can still be part of the conversation while they’re on the beach in Cancun. The divide between work and home is being consciously blurred, to make work feel more like ‘real life’.
But there’s still something not quite real about it.
In between the cheery salutation and the smiley face on the email, they’re still using words like ‘executables’, ‘leveraging’, ‘behaviours’.
They’d never dream of using those words with their friends or families because, deep down, they know they’re nonsense: invented words designed to imbue ordinary ideas with greater significance and urgency, or to avoid uncomfortable truths.
If you use words like that at home, your kids will laugh at you. But, in the office, you can say ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’ and nobody will laugh. In fact, they’ll make a note to include it in the next presentation they write for you.
That’s because your kids will give you feedback your direct reports wouldn’t dare to. They’ll tell you what they really think and they’ll tell you when you sound like a phoney. Which is uncomfortable – and sometimes unfair – but it’s also a lot more real than the environment most people work in.
I’ve spent the last 30 years working with lots of very different organisations all over the world and I’ve noticed that there’s nearly always a strong correlation between the words a business uses and its long-term success.
Big words and complex ideas are a shield people use when they want to skirt around difficult issues. It means you can ‘tackle’ those issues without ever breaking much of a sweat or upsetting anyone (or, in fact, tackling them). Euphemisms are a cover for bad news.
That’s why it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time listening to the conversations going on around you – at desks, in meetings, in the canteen, in the lift.
If the people in your business sound the same at work as they sound in real life, everything’s fine.
If they sound like a management consultancy presentation, you’ve got a problem.