Managementese

One of my teams is facing a big fat decision regarding future product direction and the process has split the team in half the “Yes We Shoulds” and the “No Way in Hells”. The manager of the team is facing a minor rebellion and spending much of his time trying to drive the team towards the “right” decision.

A few days ago, I walked by his office and he was talking with one of the “No Way in Hells”, trying to influence them onto the other side of the fence. I overheard a blurb of his conversation, “I think it’s a key decision and I’m asking you to think outside of the box…”

I cringed.

Management speak.

Walking back to my office, I thought about my negative reaction to the term “outside of the box”. What does that actually mean? Well, it means something like “don’t restrict your thinking”, but when my boss says it to me, I hear, “I’M A MANAGER and YOU SHOULD THINK CREATIVELY.” No, that’s not right… what I hear is, “I’VE STOPPED THINKING and I AM USING THROW AWAY PHRASES THAT OBSCURE WHAT I MEAN”

Barfola.

As I sat in my office, a project manager came in for a 1:1. With the observation fresh in mind, I attempted to monitor all my usage of managementese during our half hour meeting. Here are my offenses:

“Can you CIRCLE BACK with her…”

“I want to DOUBLE CLICK on that and…”

“These are the ACTION ITEMS…”

What I learned: I’ve turned into a total dorkwad manager and can no longer communicate like a normal human being.

One of my favorite books on software construction is Steve McConnell’s _Code Complete_. In the second chapter, McConnell describes the richness of language around computer science:

“Computer Science has some of the most colorful language of any field. In what other field can you walk into a sterile room, carefully controlled at 68 degrees fahrenheit and find viruses, Trojan horses, worms, bugs, bombs, crashes, flames, twisted sex changers, and fatal errors.”

He continues:

“A software metaphor is more like a searchlight than a road map. It doesn’t tell you where to find the answer, it tells you how to look for it.”

With this advice in hand, I’d always assumed that management metaphors fell into the same bucket. They don’t.

Managementese is the language which is learned, evolved, and spoken by managers. For communication between managers, it’s a convienent, high bandwidth means of conveying information. Chances are, when you say “double click” to a fellow manager, they understand you are suggesting that they should carefully check the work/task/whatever.

When you say “double click” to an employee, they know what you’re talking about, but they also know that you’ve just self-identified as a manager by flaunting some mumbo-jumbo in front of them. Why didn’t you just say what you actually meant? Are you sure they actually understood what you meant? Management metaphors obscure meaning and confuse those who aren’t lucky enough to be managers.

There are unique spheres of language which exist at each part of the corporate organization chart. Inside of the sphere is the language which is unique to the job. Engineers have one, marketing has another, and sales has yet another. In each of these groups, there are the managers who must speak their native language as well as be able to translate between spheres in order to get the job done.

Managers are hubs of communication, the better they communicate across these sphere boundaries, the more people they can communicate with, the more data they have, which, consequently leads to better decision making. Ultimately, stronger communicators make more informed decisions and, hopefully, are more successful because they waste less time wondering what to do.

Out of context use of language leads to one thing — confusion. Rather than conveying the information they wanted and getting to the task at hand, a manager who bumbles their communication is going to end up doing it again a week later. Even worse, maybe the painfully confused team isn’t going to say anything about their total lack of direction and the manager is going to be in real damage control mode weeks later.

In high tech, we’re all in incredible fucking hurry. We’re working against an unreasonable deadline, we’re over committed on features, and, now that times are tight, no one is paying for pizza on weekends. As a manager, you’re job is that of a bullshit umbrella. You need to decide what crap your team needs to deal with and what crap can be ignored. That means you need to rapidly acquire information from a variety of people… In that rush, managementese can help you talk with your fellow managers to figure out what the hell is going on, but you’re only half done. You still need to communicate to your team.

This can be tiresome because you, of all people, are absolutely sure what you’re saying. This is why you might be tempted to use the readily accessible management metaphor laced language which you’re familiar with. Don’t. Think back to when you were the junior grade programmer and that first layoff came around… and you were wondering, what’s a layoff? Am I being fired? If so, when? And why?

95% of the people in a big company simply have no clue what corporate machinations are going down and how they might affect whether or not they’ll be working in the next six months. How you will be judged as a manager by your team is based on how you communicate with them. That’s not just taking the time to have that QUARTERLY ALL-HANDS, it’s understanding what they need to hear and being able to say it in a way they’ll understand.

14 Responses

  1. Excellent piece of writing.

    Successful leaders and managers are the folks who are able to communicate effectively with multiple audiences.

    You hit the nail on the head with this one.

  2. Management speak is a kind of Mandarin. It identifies people as members of a certain social class in the workplace and excludes people who don’t understand or speak it. The mailroom boy or the guy who fixes the sink is not expected to speak it, but the up and coming young MBA needs to master it.

    I think we can trace this stuff back to the 1970s, when technical speech was identified as a sign of power. I remember education-speak starting up, with people using “basal” instead of “basic” to describe skill levels, or using “impact” as a verb. The personal computer revolution just accelerated the process.

    Like any obfuscated Mandarin dialect it allows ignorant people to conceal their ignorance and is a useful indicator of social class. Like you I find myself talking that way sometimes and realize that I’m doing it to interface with my team members in a proactive way that impacts me favorably careerwise.

  3. I’m sure glad you describe that whole ‘double click’ thing, because I had no fucking idea what that meant. I would also like to nominate it for some ‘stupid use of computer term to apply to non-computer things’ award. Even if I have to make up such an award.

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  5. Managementspeak is almost solely consistent of tired, overused phrases that are supposed to convince people of the speaker’s point, without the speaker having to actually explain himself. There is simply no excuse for anyone, anywhere, to use the phrase “think outside the box” any more, because when people hear it they immediately get a bad reaction. I know when I hear that phrase, I wince and immediately lower my opinion of the person for trying to sound more intelligent than they really are.

    George Orwell gave his six rules for writers in his brilliant essay, “Politics and the English Language”. They are:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    Conrad is right when he says that managementspeak is like Mandarin, but the best managers will totally avoid such silly, useless, self-important speech. I would add that Orwell’s rules should also be applied to speaking.

  6. Isiah 11 years ago

    Dood, I thought you had already read all the Dilbert, realized what was wrong with the world of management (specifically, that you can pretend to be a manager simply by learning the jargon and not having a thought in your head; everyone else thinks you’re working on some elaborate plan), said ‘fuckit,’ and just never bothered to mention the idea that you never wanted to be a manager like that in Dilbert.

    But now, I have to think that managers don’t actually EVER read Dilbert, no matter how ‘kewl’ or ‘down to Earth’ they seem

  7. I think everyone in the information or technology industries topped reading Dilbert sometime in 1995-1996 when they realized it was the same joke repeated constantly. Hence I would not be suprised if he hasn’t read Dilbert!

  8. T RANDS THAT’S VERY INTERESTING BUT DOESN’T HELP THE FACT THAT I DON’T HAVE OPS IN #JERKCITY

  9. You forgot to mention the fact that the kinds of language used by various business communities also varies tremendously between companies. For example, I work at Microsoft (as an intern), and there are a slew of internal terms that people use … and I desperately hope I don’t slip up and use them outside of the company, as I’d run into the same problems you mention.

  10. Kindred 11 years ago

    [BONG NOISES]

  11. UKoolaid 11 years ago

    [MORE BONG NOISES]

  12. ahpook 11 years ago

    > Chances are, when you say “double click” to a

    > fellow manager, they understand you are suggesting

    > that they should carefully check the

    > work/task/whatever.

    Holy god, if any manager around this place said

    that I would probably slap the back of their head,

    “McFly” style. Please let this be some hyper-evolved

    South of Market queerdom — is it really in general use?

    PS HI ZAKK

  13. The diference between managementese and every other dialect is that dialects are usualy used to communicate more effectively (to some group), where as managementese is used to obfuscate.

  14. Chris 9 years ago

    > Chances are, when you say “double click” to a

    > fellow manager, they understand you are suggesting

    > that they should carefully check the

    > work/task/whatever.

    You know, among people fluent in English, there has long been a term “double check” for this.

    I wonder:

    o Did someone who didn’t know how to use English

    start saying “double click” because they* didn’t

    know the difference?

    o Did some people, who were in _way_ over their

    heads working in a computer technology

    environment, decide to say “double click” for

    “double check” because they thought it would sound

    cooler and/or more “computerish?” Presumably the

    miscreants would have been people inclined to

    choose bad style over good substance.

    Either way, I think it sounds idiotic.

    But I don’t think you (Rands) are idiotic, even

    if some Managementese shows strong signs of having

    been coined by highly assertive mental defectives.

    *Yes, I use the indefinite-gender pronoun “they”,

    and I know it was the accepted English standard

    before some sexists a few centuries ago decided

    to prescriptively make English “more like Latin”.

    If you don’t like it, go suck your #$#$. And I am

    not Burningbird either. :-)