The world of work is full of empty phrases and empty words. When it comes to “performance”, there is still “room for improvement”. The quarterly figures are in the basement, but the company is still “well positioned”. Managers like to call on their employees to finally leave their “comfort zone”. If possible, however, they should still pay attention to their “work-life balance”. Otherwise the whole approach of “New Work” would be ruined.
Jens Bergmann, business journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of “brand eins” magazine, is overwhelmed with phrases like these every day. With his new book “Business Bullshit”, which was published by Dudenverlag, he declares war on the nebulous gossip in German management. To do this, he has summarized the 100 worst phrases and bubbles that haunt the world of work – and analyzed their meanings. We are now introducing a few of them to you.
Two companies, one thought
Business bullshit is used in many areas. It is ideal for glossing over the unsightly, making yourself important, looking busy, making money or gossiping around facts. “The worst thing is this good company talk and the world-saver attitude associated with it,” says Bergmann.
Because managers like to pretend that nothing is more important to them than the common good. The classic money business seems secondary. Instead, they prefer to make the world a better place with their company. In practice, the “corporate purpose” (higher purpose of a company) is usually to create some “added value” for someone – for the employee, the customer, the environment or even society as a whole.
Those who simply put common phrases together to form “values” shouldn’t be surprised if the declared guiding principles are duplicated with those of others. Bergmann gives two examples of this in his book. The Henkel company writes on its website: “Creating sustainable values is our corporate purpose, which unites everyone at Henkel.”
It’s just stupid that Timm Fleisch- und Wurstmanufaktur GmbH in Oberhausen seems to be pursuing this higher goal. Because here, too, it is said that “creating sustainable values” is “the corporate purpose that unites everyone at Timm Fleisch- und Wurstmanufaktur GmbH.”
What kind of strategy?
Business leaders also like to use empty phrases to hide their own incompetence. “Strategy is very important,” says Bergmann. “Every self-respecting top manager claims to have one – while in truth you are just muddling through.” Although managers regularly try to convince their workforce that they have a plan with the help of fancy PowerPoint presentations, they know aloud According to a study by Harvard Business Review, up to 95 percent of all employees do not understand which strategy their company is actually pursuing – or they simply do not understand. “Business bullshit creates a pseudo-understanding of facts,” says Bergmann. “And therefore leads astray.”
It goes so far that some phrases no longer make sense at all. Then there is talk of “central cornerstones”. Or of being “well positioned” in terms of agility. That is a contradiction in terms. “Either I am agile or I am well positioned,” says Bergmann. Because agility basically means nothing other than constantly changing your setup. Many managers take ordinary words and put them in an unusual context. Instead of water, managers then “set up” new processes. Economic giants do not “roll out” the dough, but rather technology or global business.
Why managers talk the way they talk
The paradox: “The person who spreads the bullshit doesn’t really believe in it,” says Bergmann. “And neither do those who have to listen to it all the time.” Nevertheless, entire departments in companies are busy communicating this to the world.
Bergmann has a simple explanation for this in his book: The social demands on companies are increasing. They should treat the environment as carefully as possible, treat their workforce well and not exploit others. Because these claims are difficult to reconcile with the current rules of the game of capitalism, managers usually only pick them up rhetorically. “You don’t really change anything,” says Bergmann. “But claims that.” The result is business bullshit.
Now this phenomenon does not only affect managers. Politicians and association members just as easily use empty phrases as athletes, celebrities, church representatives, scientists, coaches, journalists or normal employees. “This jargon is particularly suitable for those who have no idea but still want to say something,” says Bergmann. That is why we come across these types of terms all the time and everywhere. However, according to the author, companies and those who run them are the undisputed front-runners when it comes to spreading business bullshit.
What is surprising: That managers produce the same linguistic garbage across all industries. Because companies actually strive to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Nevertheless, they are thrashing the same phrases everywhere. In certain areas, however, you are a little more susceptible to business bullshit than in others. “Management consultants, for example, make a particular contribution,” says Bergmann. Because basically her job is to use fashionable terms and to suggest to the customers to be advised that you have the perspective. “That is called the Big Picture, ”says Bergmann.
Between appearance and reality
Business bullshit is used to present a flawless corporate image to the public, while it is often boiling inside. But that doesn’t mean that everyone can be fooled. “The employees know that reality often doesn’t look like it is in the sustainability report,” says Bergmann. The general public hears something of the lies of some managers from time to time through high-profile scandals.
Anyone who meets a Schwafler in private can easily expose him – for example, by politely asking him what exactly he means by the term “blockchain”. “Many managers like to use trendy terms such as blockchain, artificial intelligence or DNA without knowing their meaning or even being interested in them,” says Bergmann. Or one asks what the phrase “at the end of the day” is meant. Does that mean tonight? Or next week? Or never?
The consequence of business bullshit is that certain words are used so inflationarily and distorted beyond recognition that they can no longer be used at some point. “If everyone is talking about new work or agility, these terms lose all meaning at some point,” says Bergmann. This is problematic because the values and desires that are behind business bullshit are often important and honorable.
The “New Work” approach, for example, originally came from the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann. In the mid-1970s he developed a concept that tried to rethink the principle of work. The gainful employment is reduced accordingly, so that people can realize themselves. Today everyone does “New Work” who has a table football game in the office kitchen.
The situation is similar with sustainability: a term from forestry that originally meant not cutting down more trees than could grow back. The ecological movement carried the term forward. In the meantime, every company, from tobacco companies to car manufacturers, has a sustainability report.
To hear more plain language from the management floors would not only be refreshing, but also make a lot of sense. But talking to them is quite risky for managers. Because going with fashion means security. Nobody likes to admit that their company isn’t agile at all. You’d rather be “well positioned” – maybe with a bit of “room for improvement”.