Words Meaning Nothing: On the Empty Epidemic of “Management Speak”

A century of management fads has created workplaces full of empty words and equally empty rituals.

(Image: Jo Szczepanska | Unsplash.com)

“… they speak great swelling words of emptiness …” — 2 Peter 2:18

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” — Edgar Allan Poe

It used to be considered a bad thing when a person’s words had little or no correspondence to reality. People called it “lying,” and there was a commandment against it. Now it is taken to be the necessary prerequisite for advancement in America’s increasingly bureaucratized political and corporate culture.

A serious problem we face in the nation right now — one that infects our economic, political, educational, and social culture alike — is that so many members of the managerial class have learned to use the language of “positive empowerment” they learned from the latest business management books. Everyone is a disciple of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits” now — at least verbally. Just as managers craft “mission statements” that few people in the company actually know and “vision statements” that inspire exactly no one, so they use the language of teamwork, personal empowerment, and consensus building, but then demonstrate by their autocratic, demeaning, and abusive behavior that they haven’t the slightest idea what any of this verbiage means in actual practice. They speak as though they existed to empower their workers, then act as though their workers existed to empower them.

Consider this example from a recent article complaining about the misuse of language — more precisely, the use of language to lie and deceive — in a corporate, academic setting: that of the contemporary university. Employees in such institutions are often told that processes and decisions will be “transparent, inclusive, and data-driven.” Those are reassuring words, but they rarely mean in practice what it is assumed they will mean. As one writer expressed the problem:

“Transparency” means that some putative consultation took place that adhered to jargon-laden procedures that were understood by no one, not that deliberations are public and open to rational scrutiny, let alone that feedback is taken seriously; “inclusion” means including those who already agree while excluding those who might make trouble; “data-driven” means that supposed facts and anecdotes are found to justify decisions, not that decisions follow a thorough consideration of all available evidence. In short, the transparent is opaque, the inclusive is exclusionary, and to be driven by data is to be driven by ideology, with pseudo-evidence compiled in support after the fact.

It’s all backwards. In such cases, words no longer refer to real things and, maybe more importantly, they try to manipulate an audience.

Workers come to understand before long that “best practices” are just practices — something someone else has done that someone in management in need of some “new” initiative needed to justify his or her large salary has decided to copy. Since no one wants to be accused of being a non-imaginative copy-cat, we call these brainless borrowings “engaging in best practices” without any research into whether those practices worked at all, let alone were “best.”

I once attended a conference on student life during which a group from another campus in a session on “best practices” gave a presentation on an interesting new method they had chosen to organize their dorms. It was creative; I was impressed. So was everyone else. It was clear that the campus life bureaucrats from the institutions represented were smacking their lips ready to get back to their own campuses to try out the new idea. “Had it worked?” I asked. “Did they find that more students stayed in the dorm, as they had hoped?” “Well,” said the presenter with admirable honestly, “actually not. Our numbers fell. But we had good responses, so we are confident that our numbers will go up next year.” I wondered why they didn’t wait until they had a proven program before presenting it at a major conference.

And then it occurred to me that I had never heard a presentation from anyone reporting on a program or initiative they had tried that failed. But if no one speaks about their mistakes, how can we learn from them? For the most part, we don’t. Instead, we hear rousing words about yet another largely untested “best practice.”

There are, in fact, entire websites devoted to unveiling the real meanings behind the “doublespeak” that infects corporate America. Here are several well-known examples.

Management Speak: The upcoming reductions will benefit the vast majority of employees.
Translation: The upcoming reductions will benefit me.

Management Speak: Our business is going through a paradigm shift.
Translation: We have no idea what we’ve been doing, but in the future we shall do something completely different.

Management Speak: There are larger issues at stake.
Translation: I’ve made up my mind so don’t bother me with the facts.

Management speak: We need to take it to the next level
Translation: In theory this means to make something better. In practice, it means nothing, mainly because nobody knows what the next level actually looks like and thus whether or not they’ve reached it.

Management Speak: We are looking for “buy-in.”
Translation: I have an idea. I didn’t involve you because I didn’t value you enough to discuss it with you. I want you to embrace it as if you were in on it from the beginning, because that would make me look like a great consensus builder.

Management speak: We’re going through a re-org.
Translation: No one knows what the heck is going on at the moment

I once sat through a departmental meeting during which the dean asked for our “input” on how many theology courses we thought transfer students should take. We agreed on three, compromising on the full four we required at the time. The dean was “concerned” by this. The provost really thought the number should be two, he told us. “Fine,” I said, “clearly the provost will do whatever he thinks is best (that is to say, whatever he wants). But he asked for our best judgment, and we have given him our honest assessment, which is that three is best.” A week later, another meeting was called, and the dean was back. Now what? “The provost is still concerned about your vote,” we were told. “He still thinks the number should be two courses, not three. So he is asking you to re-consider.” Clearly the provost did not need our permission to do what he obviously had already decided to do. He simply wanted to report that this initiative had come from the faculty and was not merely imposed on them. Kudos go to my colleagues for not agreeing to participate in this entirely false and insulting exercise in so-called “consensus building.” We still voted for three, but of course, the provost had already reduced the number to two. He might have had good reasons to do so, but he never made the argument with us.

I have never yet seen an administration brag that they “forced a decision down the faculty’s throat” when clearly they had. But what added insult to injury and really rubbed salt in the wound was the completely disingenuous claim that the new policy had come “from the ground up” and was due to “healthy faculty input” when those claims were no more “true” than the claim that countries like Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela hold “free and fair elections,” representing the true “will of the people.”

It is an odd fact of current university governance that, no matter how little respect administrators have for faculty and however little they wish to involve them in decisions, it still seems important for various reasons to make it seem as if key decisions about the institution are being made by the faculty when clearly they are not. This illusion is similar in certain respects to the one students must maintain: Even if they care nothing about the education the college or university provides and care only about getting the credential so that they can get a better job, they still have to attend an institution that at least appears to care about the quality of the education if they want a credential that will get them a job. The tragic reality is that many groups within the current university system have a stake in making it seem as though it is an educational college governed by “collegiality” and “serious academic standards,” but often too few have a stake in actually making that kind of institution a reality. Hence we have now the creation and maintenance of what we might call “the Potemkin university,” institutions crafted to make it look as though there was a real college behind the façade, while increasingly, there is not. Such, I fear, is increasingly the status of our ostensibly “democratic” political institutions and much corporate governance.

The only interesting question was whether the people saying the words actually believe them themselves. Had they actually convinced themselves with their own nonsense? Or did they, as we all assumed, know that they were lying, but justified it in view of some higher good or with a sufficiently ingenious series of provisos? It came from the ground up because we asked for their input (even though we ignored it). It came from the employees because it is for their benefit (even though we will be firing some of them). We are doing away with tenure but we are really trying to save tenure. We are raising tuition to benefit the students. We are hiring more adjuncts and non-tenured faculty, but there will be no decrease in educational quality. Can people really believe these things?

It brings to mind an old saying: “Sincerity: Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

A century of management fads has created workplaces (including universities, but they are hardly alone in this) full of empty words and equally empty rituals. People use management-speak to give the impression of expertise. The inherent vagueness of the language helps people in authority dodge tough questions and any testing of their words against reality. Today, bureaucracy comes cloaked in the language of change. Organizations are full of people whose job is to use words to create change for no real reason, to no clear end (other than to preserve their managerial position) or create the illusion of change.

Rarely do organizations in trouble admit they have suffered from “mission creep,” come to terms with past mistakes, and decide to re-dedicate themselves to their founding vision to do with excellence what the institution was founded to do. Instead they usually try a series of management “fixes” (let’s move some offices around, shift authority from manger x to manager y, and outsource job z) and then come up with some “bold, new initiatives,” no more likely to succeed than the last five “new” initiatives.

If these management “fixes” involved nothing more than shifting offices around, they would be an annoyance, but not much more. Unfortunately, they also often involve the termination of workers whose fate, it seems, is of no more interest to the managers than the fate of any other item shifted around on the company spread sheet.

With the failure of every new initiative and the termination of dedicated employees, the damage not seen and largely not accounted for, because it will not show up on the excel spread sheets, is the loss of a coherent organizational structure and culture along with the sense of purpose, collegiality, and morale that are its most important by-products. The marketplace can be rough and unforgiving, but often it is internal confusion, chaos, and lack of morale that will spell an institution’s doom.

All of this would be bad enough. But the lies! The empty verbiage. The endless streams of nonsense as though something real was in the works. I respect Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and its follow-up volumes. But the poor man must be rolling in his grave to see the mendacity his books have spawned among the Dilbert-like “managers” who bandy about his words but who lack the wisdom and good will he wanted to inspire in others.

Our institutions both public and private will not work well and do the service they must for the common good until we can speak honestly with one another and be clear about our mistakes. The ever-effervescent lingo of “management speak” is no more honest than the propaganda of a totalitarian regime. It is designed to gloss over and induce forgetfulness about past mistakes and to create a Jedi mind trick that says about terminated employees: “These are not the workers you were supposed to be looking out for.”


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 29 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

19 Comments

  1. Do you really want to go here?

    Vatican II is a too easy target.

    IP and Bishops both may owe Ralph Marin an apology. “Dare we all hope…”

    A line worthy of James Martin.

    Time to call a timid spade a spade. With apologies to Brumley and the Ave Maria mafia.

  2. Cargo cult management is all too alive and well.
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    There is an article that discusses the role colleges play in employment credentialing. It is titled “Busting the College-Industrial Complex”
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    The URL is:
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    https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/busting-the-college-industrial-complex
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    The article generally characterizes colleges as playing the role of employment gatekeeper cartels. The article also points out how their employment gateway status helps to fuel the college campus culture wars. To me when colleges become choke points that determine the economic advancement of students it makes them ideal locations for PC indoctrination.
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    The financial model for edu-debt is the same as the one that powered the housing bubble. In financial terms this method of funding is called leverage. The student is speculating, hoping to flip their education for a good paying job. The financial model of education reeks of Wall Street, big business ethos. Things have gotten to the point that college is looking like the new kinder, gentler company store.
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    You take sixteen credit hours, what do you get?
    Another semester older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
    I owe my soul to the educators.
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    With apologies to “Sixteen Tons”

    • “The article generally characterizes colleges as playing the role of employment gatekeeper cartels.”
      .
      Exactly my thinking. Thank you for the link.

  3. “Management speak?” Not just a lie, but a lie WITHIN a lie…

    The liar constructs a false vocabulary cocoon within which the desired lie then can seem to make sense. Then, up in the boardroom, and now surrounded by brain-numbed bobble-heads, the planted Saul Alinsky clones can conform the entire real world to their fantasies…

    Consider that by 2015 corporate America had positioned itself as sycophant culture-change agents, anointed to help impose gay “marriage” through ever more word games and a Supreme Court fatwa.

    Broadly reported (and rewarded by the media), the lofty office towers of AT&T, Verizon, Dow Chemical, Bank of America, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and the San Francisco Giants, were among nearly four hundred guru corporations and business organizations that downloaded amicus briefs (probably identical!) onto the groomed U.S. Supreme Court, to be ever-so-carefully studied by the two-faced/swing-vote Anthony Kennedy who wrapped yet more word-fictions around the 5-4 majority opinion.

    So, now we do know what the management-speak “next level” actually looks like. It’s about brainwashing the next generation into gender theory, beginning in the lowest school class “level,” the kindergarten.

  4. Although a bit peripheral to this piece on verbal vacuity and institutional ‘group-speak’ we’ve become used to in America, my comment falls under the broader tent of what passes for effectiveness in institutions these days.

    I once worked as part of management in a very large medical center. There were weekly meetings of Dept. Heads with the CEO such that at least 100 people attended these command performances – ostensibly to announce the latest marketing gimmick that would secure the institution’s survival. In most instances, these 3 hr. meetings were a waste of time. I remember remarking to a colleague that a new rule should be instituted that would require all meetings to have a cost associated with them based on the calculated hourly rate paid to everyone in attendance multiplied by the duration of the meeting. Afterwards, everyone would be asked to answer yes or no to the question, “Do you think that the X amount of dollars spent on this meeting was worth the expense involved?” My colleague’s response: “Great idea…it will never happen.”

  5. If you want to hear meaningless “management-speak”, just listen to almost any Catholic bishop on almost any subject. Their ecclesiology-drivel puts me into a coma.

  6. Management puts an honest person at risk since virtue practiced is often perceived as vulnerability and exploited. That aside Randall Smith raises an intriguing question, Whether the people saying the words actually believe them themselves. Had they actually convinced themselves with their own nonsense? Arbeit macht frei the infamous Auschwitz entrance lie had obvious double meaning. Earlier indication of a lie made true by ‘justified’ power was the staging of Polish border attacks 1939 reported by William Shirer. Deceit in line with Nordic mythology that Strength makes right was evident in Adolf’s vociferous demands at Munich even convincing Chamberlain. As is today’s varied milieus war, personal physical encounters, intellectual encounters when glibness trumps substance. Executive managers as described above frequently seem to fulfill Smith’s query perceiving themselves by nature of their well deserved stature right as if by some new form of divine right [Trump’s Achilles heal]. Philip II Rex Macedonia selected Gk Aristotle to leave Greece and tutor his young son. Alexander taught the virtues well and their value used them well to accrue and extend power. Example that virtue may be used for evil ends. Of course the original and prime model is Lucifer. That’s not to say your boss is a devil.

  7. This art of misrepresentation (lying) is typical of M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie” and exists at all levels of our culture.

  8. The timing of this article is propitious since the Wednesday February 12 release of Pope Pachamama’s summary of the Amazon Pseudo-Synod will provide a prodigious flood of “great swelling words of emptiness”.

  9. Thank you – these alarms and warnings regarding work places and corporations, to help us to discern the increasing infiltration of the spirit of the antichrist that takes its seat in the hearts / temples of what are to be of the Holy Spirit , as an agent of all sorts of rebellion , its marking on the right hand , of enslaving work related aspects to be for promotion of its agendas .
    The related frustrations of many in these places might be what gets taken out against the Father figures, Holy Father on down , as misunderstandings and fears .

    St.Paul’s words of today , on the Power of The Cross – let there be many invoking same , as The Precious Blood , to help bring the dominion of The Spirit , in all aspects of all our lives .

  10. All the more reason to go back and read Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Thank you for a great article, Dr. Smith!

  11. Every single administrator at my university needs to read this article. On the other hand, I doubt they would understand it, or, if they did, that they would endorse any aspect of it.

  12. BTW don’t know if this applies here, but does anyone familiar with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charge at the recent State of the Union address that, the President speaking there was heavily sedated realize that, she was in effect part of (along with some medical Dr.service) a real breakage of our HIPAA law?

  13. I’ve got some alternative translations for your management-speak:

    “We’re looking for buy-in”
    Translation: “we’re looking for someone to share the blame if this fails”

    “We’re going through a re-org:
    Translation: “someone is getting fired”

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