Listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

An A to Z of unbearable jargon

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Mind your language! A handy list of substitutes for some tired workplace jargon

Managerial language, suitspeak, weasel words… it’s hard to say exactly what we dislike about them, and why we groan inwardly when we hear one. They start as buzzwords, then worm their way into our consciousness and become part of our own language. When it’s time to write a report or blog post, we can’t find an alternative.

Here’s a short list of some clichés to avoid like the plague (did you see what I did there?) and some substitutes.

They won’t work in every situation, because clear writing depends largely on context and audience. Try them when next you write an article for social media or copy for your website. You might find your prose starts to cut through the noise, like an opera singer at a football game.

The examples I’ve used were collected over two days on LinkedIn and Facebook, plus a couple of websites I routinely consult.

But what’s wrong with these terms?

1. Sometimes your readers/customers won’t understand the terminology you use because it’s just not part of their world. Some of them are just plain hard to understand.

2. Their tone is often evasive and indirect. Most of the time, plain, direct language would be more suited to what you’re trying to convey. Here’s a real example:

‘[xxx] gives you and your account manager visibility over which elements of your content marketing are actually working by collecting data across all your activities.’

If they said something like the following I would understand what they propose to do for me – and I’d be more likely to feel I could work with them.

You and your account manager can see what parts of your content marketing are effective, because we measure them for you.

And, most importantly,

3. It makes you sound just like everybody else. Content marketing is everywhere. Just one platform, LinkedIn, had 467 million users at last count. That’s a lot of competition for attention. Why sound like a corporate drone when you can say things in a fresh, original style?

Words to stop using. Just don’t.

Innovate. Everybody’s innovating so routinely that the term has become meaningless. Same for passionate, iconic, savvy and unicorns. Challenges and solutions. They’re tired and worn out, so give them a rest.

There’s a great book on the topic. In Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, author Steven Poole says that while there’s nothing wrong with jargon in context, we can ‘fight back against the filthy tide of verbal slurry that treats us like idiotic automata every day’.

The battle starts with you.

What workplace words do you find unbearable? Do you have a simpler substitute?

Working in a virtual team – the way of the future?

Technological change and the globalisation of business mean we will probably all work in a virtual team at some time. Well over half of us are doing so already.

While the debate goes on about whether virtual teams are more or less productive, efficient and responsive to customer needs, what is certain is that they’re here to stay. And while nothing can quite replicate face-to-face contact and the behavioural and emotional interaction and learning that comes with it, leaders are working hard at creating a different experience of the workplace that promotes efficient teams that are also happy and productive, innovative teams.

Technology has make collaboration across borders of time and geography relatively simple. Enterprise social networking software, screen sharing, document sharing and collaboration tools and online meeting platforms provide the means to create a sense of community. Making them available is a good start, and ensuring that they are extremely well supported is vital. Many will have experienced the frustration and time-wasting of virtual meetings hijacked by technical glitches. Excellent tech support and training for all users is non-negotiable for effective virtual teams

Whether being part of a virtual team means working from home a few days a week or managing people dispersed across the globe, there are challenges in communicationcollaboration and leadership. Sharing information, integrating knowledge and achieving team cohesion are undoubtedly more difficult than in a face-to-face team. Simply using technology well won’t solve these issues. There must be attention to the interpersonal dimensions of a virtual team.

In a healthy team, conversations are encouraged and knowledge is shared. Expectations are clear and roles are made explicit. Team members feel heard. This may be a little harder when some members are at home or in another city or country, but it can be done. From simple things like sharing photos of the team and their locations, to drawing up and agreeing to rules for virtual meetings (no multitasking, give everybody a turn to speak, turn webcam on at all times, for starters) to hosting virtual team building sessions, work at it.

Leaders must:

•  focus on both technology and interpersonal competence
•  encourage respect for other cultures and languages
•  promote diversity as a strength
•  build trust between team members
•  build trust between themselves and their team members
•  ensure technical support is available
•  facilitate training in technology and people skills
•  recognise and reward efforts and results right across the team.

Team members must:

•  dial in to meetings and events on time and respond to chat and requests for collaboration
•  be aware of body language – slumping, eye rolling and smirking are just as impolite and destructive in a virtual meeting
•  observe the same manners as in a face-to-face situation – don’t get up and walk around, check Facebook, or make a phone call
•  ask for advice and help from your dispersed team members
•  be ready to learn from one another, not just about the mechanics of the job but also about values and attitudes
•  celebrate diversity, for example by learning about one another’s public holidays, religious festivals, birthday traditions and so on.

Once the cash is in the bank, what makes the job you do really satisfying?

Research has shown that for most of us, the ideal job combines meaning – the idea that doing our job makes the world abetter place – with a decent income. The emphasis on one or the other depends on our values, priority, career stage, and individual factors such as our family situation and spending habits.

The evidence about the link between money and happiness is confusing and even contradictory. Some studies have shown that more money only brings a certain kind of happiness, others that once our lives are relatively comfortable, more money makes little difference to our level of happiness. The amount of money that brings happiness in the US has even been quantified: US$75,000 per year.

It’s even been suggested that happiness buys money, as studies have shown that happy people are better at earning more.

And then there’s the downside: generally, better paid jobs bring with them longer hours, more responsibility, less leisure time and more stress. A marketing executive who moved cities several times with his family in pursuit of the highest-paying job recounts how once he had reached his target income and moved for the fourth time in as many years, his job with a company in the manufacturing sector almost immediately came under threat. The long hours and the daily commute were exhausting him.  It took years of upheaval for him to realise that money can’t buy you job love.

Job satisfaction, in the sense of your work feeling meaningful to you and making a difference in the world, may well be easier to pursue, and more within your control.

1. Work for an organisation with values aligned to your own

First understand your own values: family? Career progression? Spirituality? Health? Then explore the values of any organisation you might work for. Do they offer generous parental leave? Are religious holidays observed and respected? Is there a mentoring program in place? Is going for a run at lunch time facilitated and encouraged? It will increase your satisfaction if not only the role, but also the culture is matched to what you find important in life.

2. Understand why you work (other than for the money)

Of course being paid is crucial. But there must be other reasons to drive you out of bed in the morning. Is it the challenge and the opportunity to prove yourself? Do you need to be with other people, cooperating to get things done? Do you need to be creative, or to help others? Look for the motivating forces behind the job itself. If your urge is to be creative but you spend most of your day managing people, you are less likely to be satisfied.

3. Place value on the work you do

Almost invariably your work will add value to the lives of others. The trick is to see it. An insurance salesperson reported finding no meaning in her job until a client pointed out to her that the recommendations she had made saved his business and his livelihood when a fire destroyed his takeaway shop.  Take time to seek out the value in your work if you feel it may have little, and you may well be surprised.

So who are the most satisfied workers? It depends who you ask, but the occupation that most consistently scores the highest in surveys is clergy, with around 98% of clergy members of all faiths reporting that their work makes the world a better place. Farmers and fitness instructors did pretty well too. This is not to suggest that you move to the country or give it all up for a position in your local gym, but it’s well worth looking more closely at what job satisfaction means to you.

The annual performance review: agony, ecstasy or just ticking the box?

 A year ago, Deloitte announced that they were getting rid of performance reviews. Research had shown, they argued, that a critical assessment was no longer the way to gather information about staff performance. Not only did they waste millions of hours, representing a huge cost, they were demotivating and inaccurate.

Other organisations, including Accenture, Google, Microsoft and NAB have also ditched the annual review and ranking system. They were convinced by their own research and by that of outside organisations that the system was not driving better performance.

If you hate performance reviews, either giving them or being on the receiving end, you’re not alone. A poll in the Sydney Morning Herald had 87% of participants agreeing that the ‘whole process is just a waste of time and doesn’t achieve much’, with only 5% agreeing that, ‘They force employees and managers to think beyond the daily grind and see how they are tracking’ and should be kept.

Kevin Murphy, a scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on performance appraisals, told the New Yorker that there were further issues:

·  Managers have incentives to inflate appraisals of their team members.

·  Feedback can make people less motivated and hurt relationships as it is often perceived as biased and unfair, even when it is accurate.

·  Organisations do a poor job of rewarding good evaluators and sanctioning bad ones.

‘As a result, annual appraisals end up as a source of anxiety and annoyance rather than a source of useful information’, Murphy told the New Yorker.

Other reasons given for scrapping performance reviews include:

·  They focused on the last couple of months and on recent performance, rather than on the full year.

·  More than half of the performance rating reflects the traits of the person conducting the review rather than those of the person being rated, due to the conscious and unconscious biases of the reviewing manager.

·  They tend to reward the most self-promoting employees, who are not necessarily the best employees in the long term.

·  They reflect an outdated way of working, based on the time and motion studies of the early 20th century, seeking efficiency above all else.

·  The performance review process is the single biggest cause of claims for bullying, according to research by reputation management consultants Risk To Business, who write, ‘The link between performance management and workplace bullying is unequivocal.’

Supporters of the review process argue that it is not the performance review per se that is the problem, but how it is conducted and managed.  Rhonda Brighton-Hall, board member of the Australian Human Resources Institute, has said that it is the quality of the leadership, not the form the performance review takes, which establishes its effectiveness. Handled well, a performance review can increase motivation, reward productive employees by giving them more responsibility, identify training needs and confront problems in an honest way. Staff are able to set career objectives and ask for support in achieving them. Confrontations can be managed in a considered way, and open communication is encouraged.

Supporters argue that it is important to separate the performance review from a pay review, as employees will perceive a negative review – or even any adverse comments – as a way to avoid giving a raise. Separating the two processes allows the performance review to feel more collaborative.

In a fast-paced work environment, there is no doubt that slowing down and reflecting on performance is helpful and positive.  Those who have given up the annual performance review have typically replaced it with more regular and less structured feedback and conversations. Next time we will take a look at those alternatives.

Why bosses have jobs and leaders build companies

My new post for Challenge Consulting

The day you’ve planned and worked for has arrived: you’ve been promoted to manager. You know that your leadership skills are going to be needed in the coming weeks and months, but what exactly are they?

Perhaps you’re suffering from ‘impostor syndrome’ ­- the feeling that you aren’t really up to a leadership role, and that sooner or later this will become obvious. How do you develop leadership skills and feel confident in your ability to lead? Here’s our guide to shaping your leadership style in the first days, weeks and months in a new leadership position.

Be clear on your priorities. Start by focusing on just three things, and get those done with the help of your team. What are you trying to achieve? How will you measure success – both your own and those of your team members? Let your manager, your team and any other stakeholders know what you are prioritising in these first weeks and months, so that they understand your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help.

Being clear about your purpose and committing to your team and yourself is what leadership is about. Knowing what you want and who you are is the basis of being a good leader.

Listen and learn. An associate told me about a new manager who came on board from another organisation and immediately began changing every process in the team – even those that worked well. My friend had worked in the team for years and was a technical expert, but the new manager believed she had all the answers. If she had listened to her new team, and to the higher-ups, she would have won their respect and trust; instead she fragmented the team and was moved on within six months.

Spending time with your team and getting to know them on a personal level will mean you can inspire each person to do their best in the way that works for them. Motivation is different for everyone. Admitting your mistakes, learning them and discussing them with the team is a way of being authentic. Being authentic means you build trust and cooperation in your team.

Create a support network. Seek out a more experienced leader who can mentor you. This will not only improve your leadership skills, but it will also show you how to map your road to success in the organisation. An informal network of others in leadership positions can act as a sounding board and provide support if times get tough. A weekly coffee or eating lunch together is a good way to put that network in place.

Better still, you can hire a coach or sign up for a leadership training course. Challenge Consulting’s research has shown that leadership training increases median revenue by $31,000 per employee and productivity by 17-21%. Formal learning can help to address your concerns and questions in a systematic way, and the leadership journey need not be a lonely one.

Develop your communication skills. This includes working on your listening skills. Stephen R. Covey wrote that, ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’ When employees feel unheard they lose motivation, so make sure you don’t give the impression you know it all or are not interested in what your colleagues have to say.  Keep your audience in mind when you speak; simplify jargon and complex technical information when speaking to people whose job does not include working with those things.

Practice giving a presentation to boost your confidence, and think about joining an organisation such as Toastmasters or sign up for a class in writing or speaking for business.

Praise and acknowledge others. Do it immediately and your team will appreciate your feedback even more. Feedback is highly motivating and team members will appreciate immediate thanks, praise and even constructive criticism.  Learning to deliver constructive criticism is an art. You can read more about providing actionable feedback in our article about common feedback mistakes here .

Take time out to celebrate employees’ good performance and meeting the team or organisation’s goals. When employees feel acknowledged and empowered to do their best, productivity soars. An environment in which people want to work can be more motivating than money, and retaining good people is the hallmark of a good leader.

As small business coach Barry Moltz put it, ‘Bosses have jobs and leaders build companies’. So learn to be a leader.

How to get the most from your temporary assignment

Temporary work can be great for all involved. Companies get to fill leave positions, cover for a key person who is ill, or find an extra pair of hands in busy times. Newly qualified workers can gain experience in the workplace and try out different industries and employers, and otherwise unemployed people can keep their skills current and earn an income while they search for a permanent position.

A first-class agency that specialises in the industries and skills that both the company and the temp are interested in can make a good match great.

So how do companies and temps both get the most out of the temporary assignment? We asked Melissa Lombardo, Challenge Consulting‘s Temporary Services Consultant, and considered what employers have valued when they nominated people for our Temp of the Month award.

Here are four things you can do to maximise the temping experience.

1. Be reliable

Reliability is Lombardo’s first requirement. It seems self-evident, but sadly it isn’t. She explains that Challenge maintains a group of excellent candidates that have been interviewed and reference checked, so that when an assignment arises, the candidate can fill the position the same day if necessary. ‘This means reliability is the most important characteristic of a good temp’, says Lombardo. ‘Temps who show commitment to the position will be most likely to be offered the next position, as they’ve demonstrated their reliability by showing up and completing the placement’.

2. Be a clear communicator

The agency can make a good match if both the temp and the organisation are clear about what they want. If a temp is unable to take a position because it means a long commute, they should say so, says Lombardo. A reasonable recruiter would not hold that against a temp, and can offer them another assignment closer to home.

Organisations should try to plan for covering maternity leave, annual leave or periods of higher activity. With more notice, the temporary recruiter can place the most suitable person, particularly for longer assignments. The best temps are in high demand and may be unavailable at short notice.

3. Be open-minded about the assignment

Lombardo says that both organisations and temps can be reluctant when the person’s skills and experience are more than the role requires. Approached with an open mind, this situation is a winner for all concerned.

The temp has a great opportunity to impress, to network and to learn new skills and systems. They will be remembered when it comes to making a permanent hire in a position for which the temp is qualified; they will think of Charlie the great temp receptionist who was actually a qualified accountant when the next suitable vacancy comes up.

‘The company gets the benefit of a person with strong experience and skills, representing great value for money, says Lombardo. ‘This is particularly true for those on working holiday visas, who may be much more qualified than is necessary for an admin assistant.’

4. Have a positive attitude and go the extra mile

Temps are always meeting new people and working in different environments. It helps to be friendly, positive, and open to new experiences. If the temp assignment is more junior than is ideal, a positive person will see it as a good way to network and have new learning experiences.

Employers should be open to contributions that are ‘above and beyond.’ Just because they are temps, it doesn’t mean they can’t make excellent suggestions or put improvements in place.