Vapour Speak – how verbal hot air can make organizations sweat

Diversity, Sustainability, Narrative, Value Proposition, Value Add, Talent, Greenwashing, Purpose, Culture, Momentum, Impact, to align, to map, to leverage, to mobilize, to champion, to drive, to disrupt, efficient, innovative, agile, equitable, inclusive, mindful…

The list is not exhaustive, and I am fairly certain that many of you have your own favourite buzzwords that are used so randomly that they can feature nicely in a good round of BS-Bingo.

Vapour Speak – a verbal fog around our brains

Don’t get me wrong: all, or at least many, of these words can have meaning, and some concepts are very close to my heart. The problem  is, when they feature in something for which I have coined the term „Vapour Speak“, i. e. a way of expressing oneself that produces a lot of hot air which befuddles our poor brains into believing that we are communicating effectively and getting things done. It’s a bit like verbal junk food – easily gobbled up, but with hardly any nutritional value. And if you consume too much of it, it might clog your vessels and sap your energy .

Here is the basic recipe: you take a handful of buzzwords of our times or your bubble, connect them with rather non-descript verbs, and garnish it with a few fluffy adjectives. Let’s take THE buzzword of our times: Sustainability! Making copious and determined use of the „S-word“ and associated buzzwords in your corporate communication gives you a lot of mileage with the general public.

Consider this quote: „Sustainable Corporate Management, which alongside strategic development, pays particular attention to the Group’s social responsibility as well as the needs of its employees, customers, investors and suppliers, and all those groups associated with the company, consequently plays an increasingly significant role in upholding stakeholder value, as well as the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).“

All the right buzzwords in all the right places. Would you buy shares of that company? Many did. It’s from the Wirecard Annual Report for 2018 (page 43).

Nothing to see here – buzzwords as signals

Apart from Mr. Braun’s Steve-Jobs-lookalike-black-turtleneck, gobbledygook wrapped in Vapour Speak is a factor that, in my humble opinion, contributed in no small measure to people believing that everything was hunky-dory in the state of Denmark (or rather Aschheim). So much so, that many did not even start asking questions after the Financial Times put it right in front of their eyes black on white. Such is the power of the buzzword.

Why? Because these buzzwords become signals – just like the black turtleneck. Or expensive shoes,  a prestigious watch, a degree from a certain university, a corporate title, or whatever inspires trust in your world. If a message is filled with the right buzzwords, the recipients of the message are more inclined to believe that there is nothing to worry about. You find the Wirecard buzzwords in just about any Annual Financial Statements or other corporate communication of respectable companies. They signal reliability, integrity, etc..  So reading them is a bit like a ticking-the-box-exercise: once we have nodded in approval often enough before our mind’s eye, we nod off. We stop listening or reading deeply or asking questions. Complexity has been seemingly reduced, and our brains go to rest.

Let’s leave the realm of criminal relevance and look at the more mundane daily production of verbal hot air and its effects .

What’s the damage?

Uniform minds
Vapour Speak is at least conducive to if not instrumental in creating a uniformity of thinking. We do not only use language to express our thoughts and feelings, we also use it to form them.  Truly “agile” minds need a vast vocabulary of terms and concepts to be able to deal with the complexity of life, to think the hitherto unthinkable, the radically new. Vapour Speak does the exact opposite – it limits linguistic versatility and thus the humus of creative, unusual thought. Uniform minds don’t give you a competitive edge.

Numbed minds
Vapour speak also numbs minds. If you go back to the beginning of this piece, you will find that all these words are abstract concepts. There is no life force in abstract, strangely „disembodied“ terms that carry no emotional energy .  If you asked a child to draw “sustainability”, it would be lost. Things we cannot picture are things we cannot grasp. And things our hearts and brains cannot grasp will hardly energize us into decisive action.

Puzzled minds
Abstract concepts are a wide open invitation to something that is called „inference“. Bascially, it means that every recipient of a message comes up with her own interpretation and assumptions. This interpretation will then form the basis of her actions or inactions. Just think about team members who receive the same message but interpret it differently, act differently, and are then mightily suprised that they „were not on the same page“ and the project is running way behind schedule. Or imagine a Board member who is told by management that the problem of corruption/pollution/human rights violations etc. is being “addressed”. If she interprets the word „addressed“ as „will be solved and not happen again”and thus assumes – reasonably or unreasonably so – that she was appropriately informed, she will certainly see no necessity for any further action. If the speaker actually meant “we are buying bigger brooms and bigger carpets so we can sweep matters out of sight”, the company might end up in a pickle. Now, this can happen with all types of message, but it is less likely if people express themselves in such concrete terms that there is less room for interpretation.

All in all, these factors do not bode well for a happy and prosperous corporate future. Because in the long term, fogginess drains people of their energy. People wandering in a fog will not take courageous steps. Also, things that are not put in concrete terms hardly trigger any concrete responsibility.

Why do people use this lingo?

If Vapour Speak can have these effects, why do people use it? Let’s look at some of the reasons, though I doubt that most of this really happens consciously:

First and foremost, because everybody else does it. It’s a phenomenon that I have been observing for at least 10 years, if not more. In the meantime, it has become omnipresent – especially in the corporate world. Perhaps one of the strongest motivations of human beings is to belong. Vapour Speak helps you to do exactly that.  When you use that lingo, you immediately signal that you are part of the tribe. Also, you certainly gain popularity by not overusing the time and attention span of your colleagues and managers.  By using the known signal words in conversations, presentations or reports you make it easy for them to tick the boxes, nod, and carry on with their lives – or the next item on their overflowing “to do” list.

Also, Vapour Speak is easy to produce. In a complex world, it is a temporary tonic for our overloaded brains (even though it drains us in the long term). It’s basically a „no-brainer“ in every possible respect.  After a while, you can produce and internalize it like on auto-pilot. Have you noticed as well that people have come to speak incredibly fast? There have always been supersonic speakers. Nowadays though, presenting at speeds that are above the processing capacity of most mortals, seems to have become the norm rather than the exception. Unless you are one of the superbrains, who really can think and speak that fast, this is only possible if you use some sort of pre-fabricated macros you have repeated so often that you no longer need to think before spitting out sentences like: „the value proposition of our agile, valued-add plattform leverages our inclusive, purpose-driven transformation agenda that will mobilize a sustainable and diverse culture“. It’s a bit like an NLP-algorithm that plays dice with words.

Furthermore, you will not stand out and are on the safe side. If you push out the right signals with conviction at 180 beats per minute, it is unlikely that anyone will ask you what your „value proposition“ is about, what “mobilize” and “align” mean exactly, or what is actually diverse about a workforce, that uses the same approx. 1197.57 words to express itself. This is especially true in companies where the lingo of choice (usually English) is not your native language. In this case, you can take refuge in these buzzwords. Even if they do not allow you to express what you actually want to say, they are a safe haven. A necessary mechanism of self protection, if the company does not provided proper support for multilingualism.

What to do?

If you want to live in a company of independent minds that are wide awake, communicate clearly, and act with prudence and courage in order to keep the company buzzing with vitality, you might want to watch out for Vapour Speak. 

If it has already become widespread, the veil of Vapour Speak is difficult to pierce, because people have become so used to it. Still, let’s just look at a few general measures that could disperse the fog and keep it at bay:

Do something about the root causes
If people use Vapour Speak to be part of the tribe, feel safe or “reduce” complexity for their overburdened minds, you might want to find different ways to create a sense of belonging and security and to help them deal with complexity.

Make yourself and others aware of it
Firstly, if you are in a leadership position, try to avoid Vapour Speak yourself.  Not being immune to that lingo myself, I know that this requires a bit of effort. But it’s worth it. Because often, the buzzwords that the top brass feeds into the corporate stream of consciousness are the most widespread and sticky – because, who does not want to sound like the C-Suite? Then make your people aware  of it using the information channels and formats that best suit your firm.

Ask questions
No matter where you are in your company, make it a habit to let that hot air out of Vapour Speak by asking questions. Kindly, but persistently. Ask about the concrete substance of lofty terms or for real life examples, so that you can understand fully and do your job properly. Rest assured, you are usually not the only one who is puzzled, and others will be grateful for the intrepid mind that dares to ask the question.

Take your time
Whenever you are confronted with a suspicious accumulation of buzzwords and their accessories, slow down and take your time to try and really understand the meaning. But beware: working out your brain in all this hot air can be a sweaty and nerve-racking exercise. It might be helpful, though,  if you try translating a foggy sentence into your own words (i. e. the way you speak outside of the office) and/or into your native language. Go about it like a professional human translator – read the sentence, try to understand  what it really means, and then render it in your own words. If it still does not make sense – start asking questions.

And here’s a promise: Whatever you do to rediscover the beauty of meaningful language – the experience will be as enjoyable and nourishing as a beautiful, home-cooked meal.

© Sabine Breit

How companies get into deep doo-doo (and how they could keep out of it)

When companies get into serious trouble that makes front page headlines, there is never just one person to blame, because, as John Donne so aptly put it: „no man is an island“.

While there are a million different reasons why companies get into dire situations, there is often a common theme: a disruption of the information flow, i.e. information does not make it safely from A to B, which means that decisions and actions rest on a shaky basis. There are many factors that contribute to that disruption, and like many things in life, they materialize on a continuum between “high-risk” and “low risk”. As we are talking about major doo-doo, though, some high-risk macro factors shall be considered here to shed light on some general principles.

The pressure cooker

Companies must turn in a decent profit, they have to monitor their costs and sometimes „group inertia“requires a „call to order“. However, constant threats and pressure, such as intense cost cutting demands, pressure to generate ever more revenue, or the constant wielding of the Damocles sword of headcount reductions, are not conducive to keeping the information flow buzzing. People who are constantly worried about making “deliverables” or keeping their job, easily develop tunnel vision, i.e. they are prone to interpret (and thus eventually misdirect) information through the narrow lens of cost cutting, generating revenue or keeping their job. The results can be an unwillingness to take risks or a propensity to run excessive risks: helpful innovations might thus be nipped in the bud because they cost money; conversely, high-risk business, that can pave the road to doo-doo, will be accepted.  Because, if you have to bring in big bacon, you will rather prefer not to engage in difficult conversations with clients which might lose you big business. After a while, chances are that people are simply too drained or de-spirited to care. When you have worn out your people, you might be hard pressed to replace them with new “talent“, because, seriously, who wants to work for a company that has no money to spend, constantly swings the bottom line whip, and tells you that your job could be gone any day.

Steep hierarchies and executive privileges

There is no world without hierarchies. However, the question is how they are structured, what they are based on, and how they are filled with life. Steep and impermeable hierarchies combined with a tradition of basically unchallenged upper echelon privileges and a military style of command and obedience are a great breeding ground for disrupted flows of information. First of all, because their primary message is that those at the top are somehow superior beings who deserve to have privileges; they must not be challenged or bothered with “the matters of the mere mortals” and must have their orders obeyed. Thus, the value and purpose of information might change from being  a “vehicle of enlightenment” to becoming a “vehicle of pleasing”, i.e. good news gets shared, the not so good news gets somehow lost on the way, or is phrased in a way that it is barely discernible as bad news. Potemkin villages are built that way. If this goes on for a while, you might no longer be left with a sufficient number of people who are actually able to call a spade a spade and escalate things clearly. Others might not muster the courage to speak up, because they fear a rebuff, negative consequences for their careers or that the office peace will suffer. Attracting and retaining people who do have the skills and the courage to speak-up will be difficult, because these individuals might simply not feel it is worth their while.

The Code of Secrecy

While confidentiality is a normal and necessary part of company life, because it protects your assets, secrecy is a different animal, which can play out in many different ways. Let’s say you make a code of secrecy a mainstay of your marketing. This necessarily attracts some customers who have a thing or two to hide. If you attract a growing number of the above mentioned ilk of clients and become increasingly dependent on their business, this will inadvertently change your flow of information in the entire company. Even in those areas where you would prefer people to speak up, especially if things go south. First of all because it changes the way people think about information and its purpose: from being something that must be shared as freely as possible to enable good decisions, information becomes something that needs to be hoarded to protect selective interests. Also, if you cultivate a culture of silence, you will have fewer and fewer people who truly have speak-up skills, either because they never possessed them or because they buried them as skills the firm neither needed nor valued. People who are able to counteract or off-set the powers of silence might not be attracted or don’t stay.

Subversive multilingualism

Multinationals undoubtedly need a tool to communicate across the globe. Most often, that tool is the English language. That’s fine, as long as you stay aware of the fact that not everyone commands that tool equally well. If you fall prey to the illusion, though, that “everyone speaks the English”, you are in for trouble. Because, after all, the information that is shared along the information chain is the information that can be expressed or understood in English. “Home-made“ translations (produced in the heads of people) that miss the point, have the wrong tonality, introduce false information or befuddle others can disrupt the flow of information so much that it becomes a game of “Chinese Whispers” on steroids. And as these things often go unnoticed (because who knows what they actually wanted to say), they are a particularly subversive type of operational risk. Also, employees who are not “natural-born polyglots” might become frustrated, because they cannot express their thoughts precisely in certain conversations and thus simply keep quiet. Consequently, their input and ideas are lost. Moreover, having to operate outside of your mother tongue for extended periods without walking on terra firma is extremely tiring. The good thing is – you will never have any difficulty attracting people who claim to have a sufficient command of  English. That’s part of the problem.

Avoiding the doo-doo: identifying real root causes and building up Corporate Courage

What all these factors have in common is that they infuse insecurity and anxiety into your culture and erode trust and confidence. Insecurity, anxiety and a lack of trust have different symptoms, but they always disrupt the effective flow of information that is so vital for level-headed decisions, effective cooperation (especially across silos) and a functioning system of checks and balances. And they stand in the way of effective escalation, which might ultimately mean that the Board steers blind or in a dense fog.

Even if you do not consider your company to be on the high-risk end of the continuum, there can be pockets in your firm where some of these factors or similar idiosyncracies might already be doing sufficient damage for you to consider doing something about it.

Actually, any kind of trouble is an excellent starting point, because it requires you to reconsider the realities in your firm and review where you are on the continuum.

Getting to the real root causes: asking “why”

A good way of doing this is to meticulously reconstruct and follow the flow of information that lead to a harmful event, and to scrutinize every interface where information was handed over and/or action was triggered. After having established the surface facts of the “What” and “How”, you must dig deeper. Asking consecutive rounds of “Why-questions” is the only way that will get you closer to the various layers of truth and the real root causes, such as cost/revenue and other pressures, lack of time, lack of expertise or experience, hiring/promotion decisions, lack of kindness, lack of language skills, lack of respect and honesty, etc. Only when you know the real root causes can you start to devise sustainable solutions. If we are looking at royal doo-doo (i.e. billions lost, reputation damaged for years, criminal prosecutors at work, etc.), a quick route to the root might be to start with one simple question: “Why didn’t the Management Board know?”

Corporate Courage: the secret anti-doo-doo ingredient

This might be a painful exercise. But the good news is, once you are down to the real root causes, there are solutions which will help you build the culture that will take you into the future. Spoiler alert:  Announcing the dawn of the “Speak-Up-Culture” will not do the trick.

Actually, the single most important trait which is required for effective information flows that make your company buzz, is courage. The courage to say „no“. The courage to get out of the „three-monkeys-mode“ and face some uncomfortable truths. The courage to ask nasty questions and accept unpleasant answers, to be challenged and to rethink. The courage to speak with clarity, to be honest (with oneself and others), and to be vulnerable. Or the courage to trust more and control less.

To foster that courage, it is of paramount importance to lower the “courage threshold”, i.e. the amount of courage employees have to muster in order to make their voices heard. Because not everyone is a hero, and no one should have to be. Anything that is the opposite of the “anxiety vectors” described above – such as more „conductive“ hierarchies, a measured tone from the top, less pressure, a reduction of damaging dependencies, or less competitive compensation systems – will achieve exactly that.

In parallel to that, providing structures and services that build confidence and trust and enable people at all levels to be better communicators and thus more confident, reliable “relay stations” along the information chain will also take you a long way. A good starting point can be to arrange listening and speaking trainings, joint employee/community activities, debating or negotiating clubs, to build a language service that professionally supports multilingualism, introduce meeting principles that ensure everyone is heard, or to create spaces that allow for effective teamwork as well as for thorough thinking.

After all, every company that manages to extricate itself from doo-doo and embark on a genuine journey of change is an asset for everyone and should be applauded for its courage.

© Sabine Breit, 2022