Monday, January 11, 2010

Management as a discourse community

We had a lot of organizational restructuring the past week at work, and a lot of managers flew in to communicate the changes and sell the positive impact they would have on the business and our lives as employees.

Personally, I was impressed by their coming, their genuine enthusiasm, and the content of their messages. But no good deed goes unpunished, and I've heard more than one smirking mimicry of phrases such as "leveraging the synergy" and other cliches popular in management-speak. This is not a local phenomenon, I see it all over, from Dilbert to STC meetings; people like to make fun of the way business managers talk.

Stop it! Every discourse community has its jargon and its cliches that are important vessels for cultural values and which are rich in meaning within those communities. Discourse community itself is a jargon-like word that I'm sure seems odd to someone not familiar with communication research. I made fun of it the first time I encountered it when I was starting my Masters in Technical Communication and ran across it in an article in the STC journal Technical Communication. Its only replacement would "a profession or otherwise socially-linked group that tends to communicate among itself and which develops a set of communication norms and vocabulary peculiar to itself." Gets to be a lot of words.

Cliches play an important role in efficient communication. Walter Ong talks about their importance in Orality and Literacy as being a cornerstone of oral tradition (making memorization easier and thus protecting the integrity of a message over multiple repetitions). Although English teachers would tell us they are empty of meaning, I think linguists and anthropologists would tell us they are rich in meaning beyond what the bandwidth of their symbology would allow otherwise.

So I put making fun of manager-speak right down there with comments such as "Is Google a verb?" Hey, we're trying to talk to each other here, folks; more listening and less critiquing would be helpful.

8 comments:

Milan Davidovic said...

Anyone still trying to put together a New Year's resolution could do far worse than to commit to observing more and judging less.

Good post, Michael.

Larry said...

Point taken. The difficulty arises, however, when the business managers use their jargon to communicate with people who aren't part of their discourse community -- that is, the rank and file.

Technical communicators and usability professionals know the danger of inflicting jargon on people who don't understand it. At best, confusion. At worst, an erosion of trust.

The smirking mimicry might just be the R&F's way of making the best of a bad experience: that of being talked at, rather than communicated with.

Margaret said...

I agree with Larry. Did the jargon-laden discourse of the business managers specifically answer the rank & file's specific questions:

o How does it affect my job?

o Will I lose my job?

o Does this mean no raise again?

o Does it change whom I report to?

o What new thing must I learn now?

If the answers are not specific to what they want to know about their own jobs, they'll be justifiably cynical. Cynicism express itself in sarcasm, mockery, and bitter humor.

Margaret said...

I agree with Larry. Did the jargon-laden discourse of the business managers specifically answer the rank & file's specific questions:

o How does it affect my job?

o Will I lose my job?

o Does this mean no raise again?

o Does it change whom I report to?

o What new thing must I learn now?

If the answers are not specific to what they want to know about their own jobs, they'll be justifiably cynical. Cynicism express itself in sarcasm, mockery, and bitter humor.

Michael Hughes said...

Actually, as a R&F myself I thought it spoke well to my issues. I thought the mimicry was more of a general cynicism toward management buzz-words in general. We wouldn't dream to mock someone for a foreign accent, I'd like to extend the same courtesy to management accents :-) And although technical communicators know the danger of inflicting jargon, we do it all the time. It's just that when it's our jargon, the fault is with the listener for being under-educated.

Quick check list, have you used the following terms with civilians?
* Passive voice
* Unordered list
* Bulleted list
* Chunk
* Content management
* Contents
* Social media
* Header
* Heading
* HTML
* XML
* DITA
* SME
* Portrait
* Landscape

Joe said...

jWell stated, Mike. From a receiver (i.e. R&F) standpoint this is great advice. From a transmitter position, I take a different view.

I think the difficulty comes when a phrase gets so overloaded or overused that it no longer means anything or includes everything and really doesn't mean anything.

Some phrases take on a meme like existence much like the old "all your bases are belong to us" or "I'm down with that"- they become wildly poular and then after time go out of vogue and only those that are not cool use it. I think "leverage synergies" is of that class. It's not all management phrases, but there are a couple of ones that are of that status.

Whether the life expectancy is justified or not I think it would be wise to be aware if an expression has reached that status and avoid it. Saying "take advantage of our similarities" says the same thing and avoids any chance at being mocked.

MattBNH said...

With fly-in/fly-out business managers, I think the cynicism has more to do with trust than dialect.
Anyone who has been in this business for long probably trusts politicians farther than business managers. If someone in authority says "leverage the synergy" to me, I think 'you are leveraging my career against my co-workers to see how much synergy (bonus money) you can realize when you eliminate one of our positions."
I agree that mocking is not the way to respond - it does you no good and if overhead it puts you on the wrong side of the 'leverage'.
I used to get enthusiastic when an exec with some energy waltzed in to inspire us, but too many times he turned out to be a hatchet man in preacher's garb. Now my policy is respectful & private disbelief, despite my hopes and inner stirring when I hear such a speaker.
Folks like that can't answer a question like "Will I lose my job?" until you actually lose your job.
I think you have the best of intentions here Mike, but having just taken on a new project to 'help' another group, and then have the company close a facility and decline to relocate the guy I was working with, dropping the project in my lap, I feel as 'leveraged and synergized" as I can tolerate for now. I don't say that with bitterness, I just keep telling myself I won't get fooled again, but the chorus seems to repeat endlessly.

viagra online said...

At the company where he worked, this happened very often since they have a way of speaking that's not very common and people laughed a lot from them until more avocados and had to lay off these people!