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They are the phrases that many of us hear every day of our working lives – and most of us, it seems, wish we didn’t.

Office jargon. Management speak. Corpro-talk.

Call it what you will – and many of us call it complete inane nonsense – there is, for many professionals in Dubai, no getting away from workplace soundbites such as ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘paradigm shift’ or ‘touching base’.

Every day, many of us are encouraged to ‘drill down’, ‘add value’ or go for ‘quick wins’. To work in an office is to slowly come to understand that ducks should be lined up, low-hanging fruit must be picked and boxes are there to be thought outside of.

Knowing exactly what all that actually means in practice is often less of a concern – for you and, quite often it seems, the person throwing such phrases about.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that jargon can sometimes irritate people,” says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, a personal and professional development coach with Kompass Consultancy, based in JLT, Dubai. 

“This is language, I believe, that is actually designed to connect and simplify ideas but, often, such phrases can do the opposite – because they become cliché 

and confusing. Some workers view them as being used to cover up a lack of competence or knowledge from their manager, while others feel it is being used 

to assert status or power.”

Indeed, in a pioneering essay on the subject, Professor Andre Spicer, of Cass Business School in London, suggests such language is actually sometimes used to deliberately mask corporate failure or brutal corporate policy. An example he offers is an email from former Nokia boss Stephen Elop which was 1,110 words of management speak – and contained only two lines revealing the company was cutting 12,500 jobs.

And yet, despite all this, such jargon continues to expand and even reinvent itself. In this social media age, middle managers now also talk of ‘having bandwidth’ and ‘going offline’.

“This is a trend which, I believe, will only continue,” says Cindy.

Which leads to three inevitable questions. What exactly do these phrases really mean? Where did they come from anyway? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you reply with your own bit of jargon when your boss asks you to ‘peel the onion’?

Here’s Friday’s guide to helping you survive the best and worst bits of management speak…

What’s the buzzword?

Thinking outside the box

What it actually means: Be creative.

The background: Perhaps the most famed – and most ridiculed – piece of office jargon of all, this is first thought to have come into parlance during the Seventies when management consultants used the phrase as an analogy to emphasise the importance of creative problem-solving in business.

It relates to a puzzle in which participants are challenged to connect nine dots – laid out in a square shape (the box) – by drawing just four straight lines. On first impression the task seems impossible: at least five lines appear to be needed. That is until the participant realises they can complete the challenge by extending one of their allowed four lines outside the square. Thus, a lateral approach to problems became known as thinking outside the box; and, applied to the world of work, it came to imply the importance of considering new strategies and solutions which might not be included in a company’s usual protocol. Liz Ryan, the American founder of the Human Workplace, an online resource to improve business through people, perhaps simplifies this best: “To think outside the box,” she writes in a 2,000 word essay on the phrase, “you only need to ask ‘Is there another way to think about this?’”

How to respond: Let’s shift the frame and see what comes into focus.

Blue sky thinking

What it actually means: Be imaginative.

The background: More Seventies consultancy speak, this is, in many ways, similar to ‘thinking-outside-the-box’ – but on steroids. It doesn’t just ask for creativity, it demands imagination, boldness, audacity even. The sky is infinite, untouchable and filled with possibility – and your ideas should be the same. Even if all you’re being asked to have ideas about is how to sell more photocopiers.

The bonus with being told to blue-sky think, of course, is that the suggestions you end up generating don’t even necessarily have to work in practice. Someone else will worry about the logistics and details later. For now, it’s simply your job to come up with grand visions and magnificent plans unconstrained by anything as burdensome as reality. Enjoy!

How to respond: Let’s spark off an ideas storm and see what rains down.

Peel the onion

What it actually means: Explore an issue.

The background: The kitchen, presumably?

An onion, so this school of thought goes, is much like your average office problem. Both are multi-layered and both have the potential, if handled wrong, to make you cry. However, both also have, underneath all those layers, a root. That is to say, they both have a solid core at their centre and a reason they exist. So, just as you peel an onion to get to its root, so you draw back the various layers of a workplace issue to get to its cause.

“This is one we hear a lot at the moment,” says Gemma Hepson, a UK-based human resources executive. “I think it’s especially popular in recruitment because successful companies understand how crucial it is to find the right person to fill each role. So, with every job applicant, bosses will ask the hiring team to peel back the applicant’s layers – beyond their professional qualifications – to find out if they would be a good fit for the company.”

How to respond: Let’s drill down and find out what gets thrown up.

Also read: Seven ways to keep your employees happy

Also read: 10 ways to be more happy

Low-hanging fruit

What it actually means: An easily achievable target.

The background: Another food-based analogy which is thought to actually have originated not in the business world but with the English poet P J Kavanaugh, who, in 1968, said of another writer: “his rare images are picked aptly, easily, like low-hanging fruit”.

Now especially associated with sales, the fruit in question refers to targets or objectives. That which is higher up the tree is, obviously, more difficult to reach. It takes more effort. It might require a ladder, perhaps. The risk of falling is greater. So the smart fruit-picker – just like the smart salesperson – goes for the low-hanging goods. The stuff they can pick without ladder or effort or much risk – but which gives the same reward. “Personally, I like this one,” says Cindy again. “It adds a little flavour to the day and some spice to day-to-day communication.”

How to respond: Let’s sing from the same hymn sheet and go for the easy wins first.

Open-door policy

What it actually means: The boss is always happy to hear your thoughts.

The background: The first thing to say about any open-door policy is, in reality, there is rarely any such thing.

Plenty of bosses might say they have one. They will tell employees they are always available; that staff should pop into their office and talk to them, ask questions and suggest ideas; that constructive feedback on the company and possible areas of improvement are welcome at any time. That’s what bosses say. They want the company to be seen as transparent and open.

The reality? Frankly, the boss has targets, staffing issues, outsourcing, his own line managers (or shareholders), sales, finance and his other half asking when they’ll be home for dinner all to deal with. They don’t really want you – an essentially over-promoted tea-maker – wading into their office, making yourself at home, and discussing the firm’s stock market performance whenever you feel like it. That isn’t welcome at all.

“I’ve worked at places where they claim to have open-door policies,” says Gemma again. “It never works because, frankly, even managers with the best intentions, don’t want to be told how to run their departments by their own staff. Egos clash and tensions rise. It’s a trendy phrase but it ends up causing friction. Firms should have ways of exchanging ideas between staff but I’m not sure this is it.”

How to respond: Transparency and communication is key to a company yielding optimum results [but maybe best to avoid actually using the open door].

Add value

What it actually means: Make better.

The background: In the corporate world, it is no longer good enough – if, indeed, it ever was – to simply to do the basics. You must ‘add value’, a phrase that became common in the boardroom in the Nineties.

This applies to products, to services and even to you as a member of staff. In an increasingly competitive world – and certainly in competitive cities like Dubai – firms and individuals alike must go beyond what is asked or expected and provide ever more. They must make what they do more desirable. They should make it indispensable.

“Remember,” writes Canadian entrepreneur, motivational speaker and author Brian Tracy. “If everyone is offering the same thing, these factors of the product or service become the basic minimum, or the expected norm in the market. If you want to stand out as a person or as a producer, you have to “plus” whatever you are doing.”

How to respond: Every service should be a premium service.

Run it up the flagpole

What it actually means: Give it a try.

The background: Madison Avenue and the American advertising industry of the 50s tends to be blamed for this particular bit of inanity. Meaning that a proposed idea should be tried out to gauge reaction and popularity, the phrase derives from a piece of American folklore in which the first US president, George Washington, was asked what he thought when the Stars and Stripes was first presented to him. ‘Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it,” he is said to have quipped.

The original meaning of the soundbite was to test something (such as an ad campaign) in public, or at least in front of the clients, but today tends to mean simply giving it a try around the office and seeing what colleagues think.

How to respond: Let’s send up a trial balloon.