Recovering from Accronymitis and Business Speak

What stamina technical trainers have, and such a profoundly good memory for holding and disseminating scads of ever changing acronyms, organizational jargon and information! I started in organizational development in the mid 1980’s as a technical trainer. I trained employees to perform effectively and efficiently in their new job functions, in gruelling 10 to 12 solid week programs. I’m sure many of you either know of this experience in the here and now, or remember it well from days gone by!

One of the training days in these long programs was Corporate Orientation. It was the presentation every trainer wanted to pass on to someone else! Everyone would look for “Mikey” to do it! Let’s face it–we thought it was Bor-ing! And the org charts! Oh the org charts! And the plethora of acronyms! (including F. I. P. P. .A. !).

I would painstakingly go over all the boxes on the Organizational Chart, describing the main functions of each division and branch. One division was ALWAYS referred to in acronym form, S.P.A.D. Lord knows how, through countless corporate orientations, I managed to describe what S.P.A.D. did, and no one EVER asked what it stood for! Have you ever gotten yourself in a situation, professionally or personally, where you let “it” go too long and then, if you were to admit that you didn’t know this “thing”, you’d feel like a total professional idiot” Well I felt this way about this acronym. It bordered on shame and I felt sure I was the only one that didn’t know what S.P.A.D. stood for!

One day I got the chutzpah to ask a fellow trainer, “Hey, do you know what SPAD stands for”? I chose her because I felt certain she wouldn’t laugh at me, or gossip about my ineptitude, with other trainers. Can you imagine my surprise and delight to find out that she TOO didn’t know what SPAD stood for! Misery loves company and we both laughed hysterically and felt relieved that we weren”t “the only ones”.

We mustered up the courage to do a secret, unscientific survey to see who else amongst us, didn’t “know”. Sort of the way Jackie and his wife, in the movie Waking Ned Devine, sneakily tried to figure out who in their village had won the lottery. Finally some ONE trainer knew!… Strategic Policy and Analysis Division! (were you trying to figure it out yourself”? How well did you do”).

The facade that so many of us are willing to play out at work, reminds me of what Stephen Hawkings has to share in his book “A Brief History of Time”. People buy this book, some actually read it, many pretend to understand it, but I suspect few of us REALLY “get it” (maybe I should just speak for myself, eh”). It also reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s Clothes. We know that the Emperor isn”t wearing any but everybody goes “ooh, awh, what a beautiful outfit!”, out of fear of the Emperor’s positional power and lack of their own personal / professional confidence in believing what their own experience of the situation is saying! The Emperor’s subjects would rather lie the lie of omission because they”re too afraid of his judgment, and they”re too afraid to lose face. It takes a lot of courage and openness to speak up and stick out. In the Emperor’s Clothes story, the truth is spoken by a child, hence, “out of the mouths of babes”!

This same scenario happens all the time in the workplace! This happens all the time in meetings! How many times over the years, and in your professional experience, can you recall nodding, along with the others, in agreement with an idea, feigning understanding, only to walk out of the meeting to discover that no one really understood what was said, and no one spoke up” And if someone spoke up, often times it was the “green, new kid on the block” who didn’t understand what was politically correct in your area or on your team! Business Author Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” strikes again! Everyone went to “Abilene”, this “no-where’s-ville place in the middle of the hot, dry, tumbleweed Texan desert. No one wanted to go there, but each one thought that everyone else wanted to go to Abilene, so they “went along for the ride”!

Organizations, especially the biggies, are suffering from “Accronymitis” and “Business Speak”. Inflammation (or expansion) of acronyms and jargon. In recent years there’s been heightened awareness, and at least a lip service effort, to pull back on it in communications, but it still exits to such a degree that many organizations publish an internal book of customized company acronyms! A new employee would be “dead in the water” without it”. Sort of like how I use to be “dead in the water” when I was forced to start watching Star Trek: The Next Generation! When they would start talking about the technicalities of “a rupture in the space time continuum” I would laugh uncontrollably. It was techno-garbo! It was gibberish! Why couldn’t everyone hear that it was just gibberish”! I”d ask my husband, “do you REALLY” understand what they just said”?, and he”d enthusiastically nod affirmatively with a face that suggested, “doesn”t everyone” You Trekky Flunky!”.

If you don’t want to feel like a “trekky flunky” in your own workplace, and if you don’t want to contribute to others in your workplace feeling this way, here are some suggestions:

1. Decide … to become aware of the words you choose to use. Some people aren”t even aware that they use “business speak”. Commit to making an attitude shift about your need or desire to communicate in this way.

2. Ask yourself, “Does my language change from group to group”” , “With whom am I most authentic”, and “Who am I trying to impress, and why”?

3. Choose conscientious usage of language. Use language which includes rather than excludes others.

4. Practice the strategy of the brain being three seconds ahead of the mouth! it’s amazing how this particular strategy, well practiced, can save weeks, months or even years of grief between you and colleagues!

5. Stop being afraid to appear ‘stupid’. Be willing to admit, “I don’t know what that means”. Take comfort in KNOWING that if YOU don’t know what something means, there are probably at least one or two others that don’t either! There’s a tremendous power in admitting, “I don’t know”. Remember that an empty vessel can be filled. One that’s full, can’t be!

6. Ask yourself,”What’s the worst that could happen if I speak up?”. In answering this question, recognize there are politically “hot” climates in some organizations where it would be career suicide to go out on that limb! In such a case, don’t speak up! YOU decide about time and place but realize that, in many cases, you probably won’t get fired or disciplined for sincerely and assertively expressing yourself.

7. Practice assertive, not defensive, righteous, attacking or ridiculing language, and tone of voice, to express the truth of “where you”re at”. All of these suggestions “hang” on the assumption that you want to become a more and more masterful student of authentic assertive communications throughout your professional life.

8. Revisit assertive communications as a subject (either through independent reading or actively through a professional development workshop) and rededicate yourself to being a ‘student” of this practice for the rest of your professional and personal days!

9. Ask for feedback about your “acronym and business speak quotient”, from colleagues whose opinion you respect and trust.

Consciously deciding to try new strategies in the workplace takes time, effort and ‘skull sweat”! There’s no doubt it’s easier to just keep on doing things the same old way. But, if you”re secretly tired of the results you get from that same old way, and if you don’t want to experience those periodic waves of professional inadequacy and disempowerment anymore, these suggestions, put into practice will yield new and rewarding results.

Oh, by the way, remember me mentioning F. I. P. P. A. at the start of this article” it’s a piece of legislation, “Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act”, which, amongst other things, is suppose to champion our right to have access to information which is officially documented about us. It also champions that once we have that access, we have a right to be able to figure out what it says! You know in your own organization that you can talk in full sentences, that colleagues comprehend, only using internal jargon and acronyms! Well this happens in a lot of official reports too! Unless F. I. P. P. A. is adhered to, being able to read your own documents would be of no use! The funny thing is, most people refer to F. I. P. P. A. as an acronym!

P.S. And why is the word “phonetics” NOT spelled “foneticaly”? I guess it’s a long way to Tipperary!

P.P. S. I”ve learned to love Star Trek: The Next Generation, over the years! Great lessons from Jean-Luc in team buidling and leadership, and Yes, there REALLY IS a rupture in the Space Time Continuum!

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