Corporate Vocabulary Means Nothing

Ted Bauer
Ted Bauer
Feb 28 · 3 min read

If you’re one of those people who deeply believes in the conventional leadership of where they work, that’s great. I envy you in some respects. For that segment of my admittedly-small audience, let me explain what I mean by this headline and general article idea.

Take a term like “empowerment.” This is a big deal in companies right now, because they’re all seemingly focused on “engagement” and “culture” as competitive advantages.

But what does “empowerment” actually mean?

You could Google it or pull out a dictionary. All good. You’d generally come to the idea that employees have autonomy, can complete projects on their own, aren’t 100% micromanaged, etc. All good Part II.

But now let’s hear from Patty McCord, who was the head of HR at Netflix for a decade and a half and helped write their famed “Culture Document.”

She has a great line in this article:

We talk so much about empowering people because all of our policies and procedures have taken so much of their power away.

Yes, yes, and yes — it’s often called “process for the sake of process.”

When an executive says “empowerment,” then, to me it actually means this:

  1. A “marketing of hope” technique, similar to how Presidents (i.e. Trump) win elections.
  2. An approach that keeps down compensation (which people need to pay bills) by promising kegs or “an amazing culture.”
  3. “This is a fluffy term that a consultant told me to put into this speech in the interest of another term I don’t really care about, something called employee engagement.”

See how the way we think of “empowerment” conventionally is different than how executives are truly framing it up? This is a problem. And it’s not limited to just this word.

What are some other examples?

A “performance improvement plan” isn’t designed to improve employees. It’s designed to create a legally-defensible process to get them fired.

“Employee engagement” isn’t about engaging employees — especially because “engagement” is such a hard to define term — as about creating a way to keep base salaries down.

“Performance review” is mostly about compliance and not increasing the productivity of employees.

“Culture” is often a list of ambiguous phrases on a wall somewhere as opposed to how the people in the company live and work out their commitments every day.

See how oftentimes “what the word/concept really means” and “how execs use it” aren’t aligned?

Why is this?

Simply based on incentive structures and availability of time in a day, most executives need to care about these things:

  • Revenue
  • Growth
  • Customer retention
  • Product/service enhancements

All the other stuff is “fluffy” to them. They kick it to HR, give pie-in-the-sky speeches about it, or nod in meetings before racing back to a financial discussion that really excites them.

None of this is wrong, either. Most people prioritize what will help them the most, or what they want to actually work on. No one wants to be bored all day (low-impact, tedious projects) or work on stuff that won’t get them higher or more money (low-context, low-priority). We all move towards our incentive structure (if we have one) or what we actually like.

Can we fix this?

Not immediately and not at a macro level. This would have to happen at a micro level. It would come from a place of:

  • More context around what actually matters at work
  • The ability to communicate about that
  • Caring
  • Some degree of candor or transparency about work
  • A focus on more than just revenue

Unfortunately, most first-world, white-collar work is about “having control” and “money,” so transparency around vocabulary is a long way off.

Plus: vocabulary and language are so specific to silos (finance guys/HR people/marketing folks all speak differently) and that’s also very hard to change.

What are your thoughts on “what you said” vs. “what you meant?”

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Ted Bauer

Written by

Ted Bauer

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Ted Bauer

Written by

Ted Bauer

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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