The Bartleby column in “The Economist” magazine is a must read for managers everywhere. Every week, to quote its byline, it offers “thoughts on management and the world of work . . ..” A recent edition dealt with what it called, wooly words. In the US we might deem them buzz words or waffle words. That is, words that are overused to the point of having little meaning. Think you know what I am talking about? You may be surprised by some of the words on Bartleby’s wooly list.
No, Bartleby does not mention any buzz word classics, like paradigm shift, new normal, think outside the box, circle back, bandwidth, and low hanging fruit, to name just a few of these annoyances. Rather, he refers to words that we tend to accept as meaningful, even unassailable, including:
Bartleby suggests that these words are ubiquitous because they are so hard to argue against. This is particularly true when a word’s antonym has no redeemable qualities. What manager really wants to stand for inflexibility, unsustainability, and lack of innovation? Therein lies the problem. If the opposite of an idea is unsupportable, managers may assume that there is little need to define the idea itself; it is presumed to be understood.
But is it?
What exactly constitutes a sustainable company or a sustainable investment fund? Should a company that pledges to operate sustainably by 2030 be considered sustainable? Much can happen in eight years. Consider BlackRock’s recent pullback on its 2021 climate change sustainability pledge. For that matter, is buying offsetting carbon credits while continuing to operate polluting factories a sustainable business practice? Who’s to say? The term, sustainability, is amorphous. Ask ten people what it means, and you may receive ten different answers.
The same measure applies to the term, flexibility. Many a Covid era manager has praised his/her organization’s flexibility, citing hybrid work arrangements and on-the-fly, supply chain alterations. It sounds convincing until one looks at trade-offs: Including higher costs, missed deliveries, and increased worker turnover. For instance, a recent MIT study found that having a regular work schedule was a powerful predictor of blue-collar worker retention. Blue collar workers with flexible schedules were six times more likely to quit. Like the term, sustainability, flexibility has different meanings for different people.
The theme of this blog, and the Bartleby column upon which it leans, is that managers should use certain words sparingly, understanding that what he/she considers to be positive and obvious, may be interpreted differently by others. Buzz words come in many forms, some of them quite unexpected. Managers must be as specific as possible in their communications because, yes, even the term, innovation has perceived drawbacks. Read the May 14, 2022 Bartleby column to learn why.
Peter has spent the past twenty-plus years as an acting/consulting CFO for a number of small businesses in a wide range of industries. Peter’s prior experience is that of a serial entrepreneur, managing various start-up and turnaround projects. He is a co-founder of Keurig.