The Behavior Behind the Buzzwords

The language of management —the specialized jargon, catch-phrases and buzzwords — is a kind of shorthand. At its best, it helps people who share common assumptions to communicate with one another. Too often, however, the words lead people down the wrong path. They signal one thing, but they really mean another.

I’m not talking about the many euphemisms used to paper over the unpleasant realities of the job — down-sizing, for example. Those usually fool no one, which is why they make such easy targets for humorists like Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator. The terms and phrases I have in mind are those that mislead managers themselves, setting the wrong expectations about behavior that is vital to an organization’s performance.

Setting clear expectations, as every good manager knows, is critical to getting everyone in an organization to do his or her part. It is also vital to every individual’s sense that he or she is being treated fairly. When an activity turns into a buzzword, the odds are high that managers will stop thinking consciously about the behavior they’re trying to elicit and the best way to set expectations clearly. That’s why it’s important to pay attention when buzzwords take over management’s most important responsibilities.

Thinking Inside the Box

Consider the all-too-familiar admonition to “think outside the box.” Whenever a phrase like this makes the rounds in organizations, there’s usually a genuine itch that needs to be scratched — at least at first. A decade or so ago, the competitive environment had intensified rapidly and overcoming resistance to change was the challenge facing organizations of all sorts. “Thinking outside the box” entered the lexicon of buzzwords as a way of capturing people’s need to embrace new ways of conceptualizing old problems.

Today, the phrase makes many people cringe. There is often an inverse correlation between the frequency of its use and the amount of truly original thinking under way. The problem with phrases like “thinking outside the box” is that they quickly become slogans, applied universally and somewhat mindlessly. That’s a shame because, properly understood, thinking outside the box can be a very useful metaphor.

The phrase comes from a famous puzzle most people have tried at one time or another, in which nine dots are arrayed in three rows of three dots each. The challenge is to connect all of the dots by drawing four straight lines without lifting the pencil from the page.

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References

1. See D.S. Pottruck and T. Pearce, “Clicks and Mortar: Passion Driven Growth in an Internet Driven World” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

2. From a 2001 PBS documentary, “Critical Condition: Inside American Medicine,” with Hedrick Smith.

3. See C.A. O’Reilly III and J. Pfeffer, “Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results With Ordinary People” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

4.M. Brelis, “Herb’s Way,” Boston Globe, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2000.