The Rise of Synergy: Business Buzzwords Part 1

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For two weeks, I’ve been mulling over an article on business buzzwords that need to die. To make sure I didn’t overlook any major offenders, I took to Facebook to poll my friends – what buzzwords did they hate? Less than a day has gone by and I’m sitting on over 75 80 responses – I do not have enough friends to justify that many responses.

kdd_buzzwords

So we’re going to make this a two-part piece. Instead of just listing out some buzzwords and why they’re stupid or reviled, I want to look deeper at why these things exist in the first place. What system keeps words that we all hate, not just alive, but thriving?

As with all trends, it pays to look to the top first.

The grandfather of bad business words

If there’s a poster child for business buzzwords, it has to be “synergy.” Synergy has been so roundly mocked that even when it makes sense to say it, you probably shouldn’t. It has also found a life unlike any other word, spreading like wildfire through the business world.

Here’s a chart showing synergy’s popularity from 1800 through 2000.

KDDBuzzSynergy

Synergy shows up at the beginning of the 20th century, probably due to its scientific usage. Then, around 1960, everything changes and synergy takes off like a rocket. By 1968, synergy is being mocked in a Barron’s piece on entrepreneurship in America.

There’s not a lot to go on, but as far as I can tell the first use of synergy in the business context that we now know it may come from a 1951 article in Human Relations magazine by Raymond Cattell, a British-American physiologist. The article talks, in part, about how group synergy works and can be harnessed or guided by leadership.

From Cattell, synergy must be picked up by HR staffers, who bring it into businesses, where it replicates and expands. It’s a mid-century meme.

Buzzwords in your business

“Meme” is itself a sort of buzzword, created by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. In essence, a meme is a social virus. Except it spreads cultural ideas instead of a rash.

Like all memes, buzzwords spread because they have some value. Tony Robbins has talked about the power of building rapport for decades. To do it, you act, think, and speak like the people you’re trying to build rapport with. “Rapport is created by a feeling of commonality,” Robbins says.

So when employees, bosses, friends, or coworkers hear a person they respect use a buzzword, they jump on it to emulate that person. The hope, conscious or not, is to build a better relationship through this repetition.

I had a boss once who was great at picking up on buzzwords and using them in sales meetings. Buzzwords, for all their faults, are like little signals that you send out, saying, “I know business and I know you.”

One day, a client asked if something was “in our wheelhouse.” I’d been in dozens of sales meeting with my boss, but not only had I never once heard him say “wheelhouse,” I had never heard the term, period.

“Oh yeah,” he says without missing a beat. “That’s right in our wheelhouse.”

From that day on, every meeting had at least one mention of wheels and their houses. Why? Because it signaled to clients that he was in on the latest trends and terms. We were cutting-edge and we knew how business was done.

The problem with buzzwords

The trouble with buzzwords is that they move from being a useful shorthand in a sales meeting to being a meaningless filler word very quickly. It’s how memes work. The first time you see a freeze frame of Giorgio Tsoukalos, you laugh. The fiftieth time, you shrug.

KDDAliens

Buzzwords quickly lose their impact because they’re overused. People want to emulate their leaders and role models so they find every opportunity to do so.

That’s how you end up with the CEO of Campbell’s Soup saying, “We had a burning platform to change or become irrelevant.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

These terms have no content. Instead of signifying that you understand the current business landscape, they just highlight your inability to use English in a clear and meaningful way.

How to kill the buzzwords

The first step to cleaning house is to take something difficult to heart – the words you say are one tenth as important as the actions you take. It’s hard to stop wanting to sound smart. When the people around you are immersed in buzzwords, you feel obligated to join in. You have to remember that talk doesn’t matter.

As Adam Grant, a professor at Penn’s Wharton School, recently said, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” This is something that we overlook countless times in every aspect of business.

Instead, say what you mean in the clearest way possible. Even if the person you’re talking to has just asked you a leading question that would normally require a buzzword laden response. To paraphrase George Orwell, never use a buzzword or cliché that you’re used to hearing other people say. No one has ever won an employee of the year award for repeating the garbage they hear.

If you stop repeating it, you can help your coworkers and employees stop the madness. A virus needs a host, and if you can remove all the viable hosts from your workplace, you can live virus-free.

The last thing I’ll say about cutting buzzwords out of your office is this – don’t make it personal. If you have employees who are always on the buzzword train, don’t call them out in meetings, don’t mock them, and don’t question every use. An open culture where everyone feels free to contribute is better than a closed culture where everyone shuts up, even if the open culture is full of meaningless placeholders.

Next week, we lay down the law

Now that we’ve got an understanding of how buzzwords work and how we can trim their use, we can start to talk about which words are actually worth killing off.

Next week I’ll give you my hit list, along with some background on each phrase and what you can do to replace it in your everyday speech.

Between now and then, I’m still taking suggestions for words that need to go. Shoot me an email or drop a line in the comments with your least favorite corporatism and we can wage this war together.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is an analyst at CEB. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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