Business-speak: Short-cut or rat run?

27th March by John Gray

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Business-speak: Short-cut or rat run?

As a business coach, I notice that my clients use jargon or business-speak all the time. It’s an indication that they’re comfortable with the language and suggests that their colleagues are probably also using it in the workplace, day in and day out.

When does jargon cross the line from being useful to being actively unhelpful or dangerous? To use a metaphor - and coaches spend lots of time working with clients’ metaphors - jargon and business-speak are fine as shortcuts, but dangerous if they become rat runs.

As shortcuts, jargon phrases are convenient and useful ways quickly to convey something to a knowledgeable audience – “Outside the box”, “Going forward”, “Rebase the business”, “Helicopter view”, “Reaching out” ...

Whether you find these irritating is perhaps a matter of personal preference.

At work, shared language and terminology can make people feel at home and that they’re part of a community. Most of the time, so long as I check to make sure I’m understanding any technical terms or expressions, I let the jargon pass if it’s helping the client quickly explain and understand better their situation.

But I can be as blind as the next person to words or phrases which I think I recognise but which carry limiting assumptions or beliefs.

So, what if jargon becomes a rat run? A rat run means that what began as a shortcut now brings collateral damage to the wider environment, like rush-hour traffic filling up a residential street. This collateral damage happens when business-speak is weaponised (jargon-alert!) to damage other people, or to conceal unpalatable truths.

The best example of the former is workplace discrimination against women. “Man up”, Old boys club”, “Man up”, “Calm down dear” are dangerous if they establish or sustain an oppressive culture, or if they undermine women for traits which in men are respected and rewarded.

Another example is professionals using jargon in a way which makes it harder for service-users or marginalised groups to understand the services available, or to fully understand the circumstances they’re facing.

Jargon phrases which conceal an unwelcome truth are too many to mention. Common examples are

  • “red-pen exercise” or ”selected out” (redundancies),
  • “de-risking” (putting the risk on to others), and
  • “sustainable” (we’re adjusting our supply chains or production methods to do slightly less damage to the environment than previously).

Sometimes, however, business-speak is neither a useful shortcut, nor damaging to others, but it masks potentially deeper issues. For example, what does it mean if a client says, “The meeting was just a knitting circle”, when referring to an unproductive meeting which no one took responsibility for improving. Does that suggest they were unhappy with the process but didn’t feel confident enough or skilled enough to challenge how everyone’s time was being wasted?

Not necessarily so, but worth a question from the coach.

If a client speaks in military jargon – “locked and loaded”, “run it up the flag pole”, “they were just collateral damage”, does that translate into to how they behave towards the people they manage?

Perhaps not, but it might be of value to the client to probe deeper to explore how they value other people.

What’s important is to stay awake and notice what our words are doing to us and to others. To be awake to the possibility of unconscious or unchallenged assumptions, and to raise them into awareness, can be one of the great services a coach can perform for their client.


Our sincere thanks to John.

John Gray is a business coach, a coach supervisor, and an Academy of Executive Coaching faculty member on its Certificate and Diploma coach training programmes. John’s coaching work focuses on leadership development, effectiveness and fulfilment at work, and his clients include a wide range of corporate and not-for-profit organisations.