Deconstructing management speak

By Kate Kearins.

Oh, good fun. AUT Alive: Our Most Open Day. The campus was abuzz with thousands of potential future students, friends and families checking out the university. Our staff have outdone themselves. Time to write a note of sincere thanks to all concerned.
But hang on, more than half the staff were not involved. They did not need to be. But there’s always next year when they could take a turn. How to make a group thank-you email, also a call to arms?

Somewhat ironically, as I was trying to construct a nuanced note to send to 393 email recipients across business, economics and law at AUT, I was also reviewing a paper on the use of language in corporate communication.
One of the more telling points was around when ‘we’ as managers talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’.

We use the ‘royal we’ when we are trying to be inclusive and part of a team, reducing power-distance perceptions. “We did a great job out there today.” We also go for wider attribution of responsibility when we don’t want to be seen to be alone, in trouble or out of touch. “We all did our best even though some of us could not make it along this time.”

We need to watch, though, for the use of ‘we’ as implied command. “We are all clear about this, right?”  I am thinking we don’t need an applied linguistics degree to work out how it feels to be on the receiving end of something like that.
Coming from an organisation full of academics where managing is known to be akin to herding cats, I can tell you admonition – gentle or friendly reproof – is generally only ever felt by those who don’t need it and may well be ignored by those we were most hoping would come into line.

Further caution in the use of ‘we’ is needed lest we reduce ourselves to a technique found in nurse-patient communication of old. “How are we today?” Or secondary baby talk. “Have we finished our dinner/report yet?”
I am starting to think there is a lot we – or I, at least, could say wrong. And let’s remind ourselves that I was wanting to write a positive email of appreciation, spurred by a good experience and a sense of team spirit.
Things could be worse. It might be one of those tough work emails to write, or conversations to have.  ‘We’ can, however, share disappointment. Better though that ‘I’ personally acknowledge sorrow or distress. Equally, that ‘I’ congratulate and acknowledge a individual or team success.

We have moved, in general, a long way from passive construction, to be active in the communicative field – to recognise our agency, and to recognise that of those with whom we are communicating in what we call co-construction.
None of us can close down another’s meaning-making. But we can do well to be conscious of our intent because it will come through in the language we use and how we say things.  
Modern corporate communication has, thank goodness, moved even further from the use of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’. But there is still a problem in getting all the way from ‘me’ to ‘we’. It’s an identity that good managers may be granted by employees, not one that they can bestow upon themselves.

Kate Kearins is professor of management, and deputy dean at Auckland University of Technology’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law.

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