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Concept Creep & the Buzzword Arms Race

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the words we use for important ideas about work ‘diffuse’ over time, and all the problems this creates. Like a game of telephone, as an idea spreads its initial meaning gets refracted through each receiver, who stamps it with her own experience before passing it on. What starts out as a clear concept gets muddier and muddier over time.

I’m talking about terms like employee engagement, culture, leadership.

This week I stumbled on an article that seemed to put a label on this phenomenon: concept creep. The article was a reflection on the evolving use of the term “emotional labour”, and an interview with the sociologist who coined the term, Arlie Hochschild.

Hochschild argues that the broadening of the term “emotional labour” risks deflecting deserved attention from its original meaning. She believes that the evolution of the word into a catch-all term for work done at home or on the job that predominantly falls to women (and often goes unnoticed) highlights a real issue, but not the more specific issue that it was initially intended to (paid work that requires effort to evoke and/or suppress the right feelings for the job).  Hoschild contends that the expanded meaning assigned to the idea may prevent us from acknowledging and exploring how much of our work is alienating, regardless of our gender.

Beck: Are you comfortable with that expanding definition? Language evolves, right? Do you think that’s a fine way for people to be using this term, or do you have concerns about it?

Hochschild: It makes the thinking a little blurrier. On the whole, I love the idea that people are exploring the realm, and so I welcome that, but I guess I don’t like the blurriness of the thinking.

Hochschild: I agree. We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with [a] blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way.

If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself. That’s what’s going on.”

Concept Creep

I should have felt satisfied with discovering a name for this phenomenon. Before reading about concept creep, I’d looked up and discarded a handful of contenders that weren’t quite right: linguistic or metaphorical extension, semantic drift, semantic change, semantic shift, or semantic progression, and even wrestled with Google to remind myself of the term for that feeling when a word loses all meaning if you say it enough (that’s semantic satiation, by the way).

But I didn’t feel satisfied, because I think there is more going on here. It’s not just that concepts are introduced and labelled, only to be subject to a slow spread as its boundaries become porous, encompassing a broader and more inexact idea. That process seems unidirectional. It seems to me that what also happens is that similar or identical concepts are given new labels, perhaps in an attempt to slough of the accumulation of ‘idea debris’ that has built up over time.

What’s New is Old Again

Last year, on a business trip to Australia, I decided I would use the uninterrupted alone time on my flight to read an anthology of classic organizational theory writing (I am a lot of fun). I was surprised to find that about 80% of the ideas and research it contained felt like they could have been published last week. So much of what we think of as new is not; it’s simply been given a new label. The cynical part of me assumes that some of this is an attempt to sell more things (books, consulting, ads based on clicks).

But I choose to believe that at least some of it is our instinct that in order to cut through the personal and organizational baggage that accumulates around abstract terms like ‘engagement’, ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, ‘collaboration’, or ‘inclusion’, we have to use new language. Language that provokes people to pause and listen, to inquire, rather than to mentally check a box and assume we’re talking about the same thing. Language that prevents people from thinking “Yeah yeah, I e heard this before” and zoning out. We need that mental speed-bump to have an actual conversation.

All Aboard

Imagine, if you will, setting off on a journey to change the way we work. The HMS Employee Engagement launches to clear skies with nothing in its cargo hold but the message that organizations should attempt to increase their employees’ commitment to, and satisfaction with, their jobs. Amen! Who can argue with that? (Well, no one. That’s kind of the point…)

Our shiny new vessel carefully navigates around some ship wrecks, the HMS Employee Morale and HMS Job Satisfaction (don’t look too close folks, nothing to see there) and takes on passengers at a few ports. Everyone’s very excited to get on board. They bring all sorts of stuff with them: suitcases, trunks, crates of their own experiences and ideas. It’s a big ‘Yes and’-apalooza. And then the boat starts to drift off course, takes on water and (you knew it was coming) runs aground.

Onlookers ashore quickly spring into action. Obviously the HMS Employee Engagement was doomed from the start, they say. It exceeded capacity! It had a bad map! No worries though. They’ve got a new boat ready to launch and it’s going to be different this time. The Employee Experience Express is a winner.

[Please note that I really wanted to work a Boaty McBoat Face joke into this post, but I ran out of time. I regret the omission and welcome your joke submissions.]

Barnacles to Buzzwords

I complain about buzzwords as much as the next person, but thinking about them as a consequence of concept creep makes them less annoying somehow. Of course, it does suggest that we’re locked into a buzzword arms race. Surely there must be another way?

One approach, which Hochschild alludes to, is taking the discussion of these and similar concepts out of the abstract and into our specific organizational context as soon as possible. If we use specific and vivid language to describe what we mean by ‘engagement’ or ‘culture change’ then we’re more likely to be clear ourselves about what we’re trying to accomplish, and less likely to overlooked different assumptions brought to the conversation by its participants. We might ask ourselves, and each other: what’s already happening that we want to see more of? Less of?

That is, if we say we want a culture of “Customer-centricity” we might struggle to have a concrete and meaningful discussion about what that means for our organization – it’s unlikely anyone is going to say “That sounds terrible”.  But if we instead describe what that looks like (employees having authority to approve refunds for unhappy customers without getting approval), what it does not look like (employees doing whatever the customer tells them, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable) it’s far more likely to surface disagreements and misunderstandings, and to bring us to more actionable decisions.

I don’t think we can stop concept creep or buzzword proliferation. But if we see them as symptomatic of the challenges of communicating about abstract ideas, then perhaps we can blunt their effect.

Recommended Reading & Viewing:

The surprising fragility of a powerful perk: company culture – Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work

An insightfully narrated tale of woe about the unintended consequences of engineered culture change. The challenges of language show up here too. The intention behind “only accept awesome” might have felt crystal clear to those who wrote it, but once it’s released into the wild we each bring our own history and point of view to its interpretation. And, culture is complex stuff, produced through countless interactions, many variables and interdependencies. We need to let go of the idea that we can bring an engineering approach to culture to achieve predictable outcomes.

“After several rounds of fine-tuning, the culture committee members identified the norms, values, and behaviors they wanted to encourage

About a year after the behaviors were created, ugly new patterns emerged, not despite the behaviors, but because of them.

Maybe it was their extreme pithiness that left too much room for subtext, or their newfound power as performance metrics, but the behaviors began to take on sinister undertones.

Of all the behaviors, “only accept awesome” was probably the most destructive. It came to be read as “work until you’re exhausted,” never pushing back, even with an over-demanding client whose needs, per their contract, had already been met or exceeded.

The cultural fabric was now warped—again. While the behaviors had cured the apathy problem, they had created a cult-like devotion to work that the staff grew to resent.

On the face of it, choosing to elevate an idea like “I’ve got this” may seem wholly positive, but three words can’t capture much nuance. It’s not surprising that employees might mentally downgrade the possible flip-side behaviors, like collaboration and personal wellbeing.”

Five things HR should start doing – Rob Briner, Future for Work Institute

Smart writing from Rob Briner. Number 4 on his list reminds me of the post I wrote last week (about paying attention to what happens in between the ‘things’ that we see as our job)

“4_ Start paying more attention to the boring but important stuff.

Everybody has seen those silly two-by-two tables that so over-simplify the world they stifle critical thinking and analysis. Well here’s another one. Going left to right the columns are ‘exciting’ and ‘boring’. And the bottom row is labelled ‘trivial’ and the top ‘important’. Of course, we all love the stuff in the exciting-important quadrant. The bad news is that there isn’t much in that box that needs doing and, because it is exciting and important, we’ve probably already done it. We really should take a look in the boring and important box as, like it or not, that’s probably where the action is. My hunch is that doing really effective HR is (probably like doing good stuff in many jobs) not a roller-coaster ride of thrills and is an inherently slow process with few quick fixes. Intervening to shape or develop people’s behaviour takes time – and it may be quite a while before effects are seen.”

Gendered Linguistics – Elle Graham-Dixon, Group Planning Director & Equality Strategist, BBDO, 3% Conference

Thought provoking talk about how language can lead us to stereotype and exclude. Probably not what you expect after reading that sentence. Worth the 15 minutes!

Photo by Ahmed zayan on Unsplash

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