November 8, 2018

RUSSELL | An Improvement Opportunity that Could Really Move the Needle!

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Perhaps no motif is more ingrained in our psyche than that of the mentor or father figure offering up powerful life lessons in low-voiced, soothing maxims. As the undisputed “next generation,” we’ve come to expect these teaching moments in not just our films or television shows, but also in most of our interactions with people over 40. It’s hard to go a week without the typical “As you move into the real world, remember…” or “There’s an old saying in Tennessee…”

For me, many of these conversations center around the idea that we have the opportunity to undo or at least avoid the mistakes of our parents — to get the best out of the world we’re inheriting as we shape it into something more fair and welcoming for all. There’s one aspect of this “real world” before us, however, that many in the baby boomer generation still don’t recognize as a problem for their successors to address. The area, in my view, is a source of untold anguish and ruin – a dark spot we must bleach before it further stains American society. To me, there’s no question: we must let die the mass abuse of those stupid cliché business terms.

If you’re not familiar, some examples of these banal utterances include saying “improvement opportunities” instead of “problems,” or, yes, even calling managers “people leaders” and the H.R. department “people operations” (et tu Google). It isn’t just euphemisms, however. There’s a slew of trite idioms you’ll hear on repeat at any office space: “boots on the ground,” “moving the needle,” “open door policy,” “let’s take this off-line,” and many more.

I’m convinced that a sizable portion of the people you’ll meet who tell you they “work in business” really just do busy work and recite these buzzwords to their “team members” (not co-workers) at the office.

Phrases like these are verbal stock photos — overtly staged and woefully conventional. They’ve created a world where workers can’t tell if they’re being fired and no one really knows each other on any distinguishable level, behind the masks of veiled rhetoric. If we’re all saying the same thing in the same way based on the same pseudo-scientific studies advocating for ambiguous language, we’re only dehumanizing corporate culture. Why fight automation’s potential to replace employees, when employees themselves are becoming robots by way of their words?

Today, the same parents complaining that their children get participation trophies are espousing the semantic equivalent when they give every person and every situation the same canned clichés. Business is about the rush of both the triumphs and the failures, not making failures sound like triumphs with dull language.

The truth is, though, that there’s little hope for change.

The other day, I watched a nine-year-old yell “YOLO” before he rolled down a hill with his friends. He was two years old when Drake’s “The Motto” came out, so I doubt the reference was an homage to the 6 God. For almost a decade, this has been just a part of how you talk in elementary school. You pick up the terms once you arrive, and no matter where you came from, it’s hard to resist their allure. When everyone else says “YOLO,” 8 times a day, it feels like adopting the vernacular is the way to gain membership into fourth grade culture.

It’s the same in the corporate world. As I look back at my internship experience, I can chart a distinct path of language shifts. Each Fall I return to campus with a few more idiotic idioms in my toolkit. I don’t want to talk like a character in Office Space, but I can’t help it. I want to sound smart, so instead of actually making intelligent comments I resort to the next easiest alternative: using the same terms the smart people use. It’s all about being accepted, and despite this article, I’m unlikely to change.

Whether or not our generation can do away with “people leaders” for good, our converging vernaculars are proof of a truth we’ll likely all come to terms with as we move into our careers: in more ways than we’d like to admit, we really aren’t all that unique. No wonder our chance of a mid-life crisis is as sure as death and taxes. Becoming “part of the crowd” is the default, even for high achieving Ivy League students. Overused business terminology is just a symptom.

But there’s certainly hope for us. Maybe there’s something to be said for trying not to fit in, even in the corporate cultures we strive so earnestly to blend into. Standing out surely won’t always get you promoted, but at least it’ll help us keep our sanity. So I say it’s worth it.

Paul Russell is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Russelling Features runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com.