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What Works: Eager for a Paradigm Shift? Not So Fast!

May 29, 2002
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Whenever I hear the word paradigm, I have trouble keeping a straight face. It’s all because of Ray.

It happened at a managers’ conference three years ago. The room was hot, lunch had just been consumed, and everyone wore an expression that was somewhere between feigned interest and deep sleep. Ray (not his real name) was the podium, clicking through his PowerPoint slides, telling 40 managers about his goals for the next 12 months.

He was 15 minutes into his presentation, slowly (very slowly) building a case for workplace change, when he uttered his now-famous line: "What we need is a para-dig-um shift."

Huh? We need a what? I sat up straighter in my chair and tried to clear my head. Did he say...para-dig-um?

While buzz-terms can create an illusion of understanding for those who use them, they often signal just the opposite to people on the receiving end.

I looked at the person on my left, who had been completely still throughout Ray’s opening, except for an occasional somnambulistic twitch of the hand. Now he seemed alert. He leaned toward me and whispered, "What was that?"

Before I could answer, the person on my right whispered back, "I heard it too. He just said para-dig-um. Doesn’t he mean paradigm?"

Indeed he did. You see, Ray is a voracious reader who consumes every management concept the moment it reaches print. This is good; he says informed. What’s bad is that he routinely unloads the buzzwords and clichés without thinking. In the case of paradigm, he had seen the word on paper -- but never talked about it or explored it in any serious way. Hence the phonetic stumble.

The work world is noisy with overused words and phrases. We’re told to think outside the box, go the extra mile, and push the envelope. We’re urged to synergize, smartsize, and rightsize. Doing so will make us world class, best of breed, and value-added. Not interested? Hmmm, perhaps you’re not a mission-focused team player who can conceptualize a true win-win paradigm shift.

Karl Geiger knows plenty about all this. During a dozy meeting five years ago, his mind wandered to a Scott Adams cartoon in which Dilbert gets a "Buzzword Bingo" card from a coworker. Dilbert is on his way to a meeting, and the coworker gives instructions: "If the boss uses a buzzword on your card, you check it off. The objective is to fill a row."

Back at the real meeting, Geiger leaned toward a colleague and rattled off some of the buzzwords that had been flying around the room. The colleague gave a knowing look and responded: "Bingo!"

All of which left an impression on Geiger, who’s a veteran programmer and now works in systems design. he went on to spend a free afternoon programming a Web page that creates actual Buzzword Bingo cards. (You can see his finished product at Feel free to print out your own Buzzword Bingo cards, then play the game -- subtly, please -- at meetings, presentations, and retreats.)

All of us are guilty of using the occasional buzzword, cliché, slogan or TLA (three-letter acronym, of course). They’re harmless in small quantities. It’s when they’re voiced again and again -- when they define our vocabulary -- that we should worry. That’s because buzz-terms are brief and snappy, roll off the tongue easily, and can fool us into thinking that we know what we’re talking about.

"It’s dangerous when they’re used as a substitute for thought," Geiger says. "People sometimes come up with terms to sound like they’re in the know that they know the underlying concepts -- when in fact they’re just parroting a shorthand version of a complex set of ideas. They’re not being mindful of what they’re saying."

Geiger once had a T-shirt printed that declares: "Furious activity is no substitute for understanding." The same can be said of a trendy term, catchy phrase, or slogan du jour.

Ironically, while buzz-terms can create an illusion of understanding for those who use them, they often signal just the opposite to people on the receiving end. Ray’s one-word stumble killed his credibility. When the session ended and people started talking and laughing about para-dig-um, they had Ray pegged as someone who didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. The larger message never had a chance.

Even when buzz-terms are pronounced correctly and spoken with all the passion of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, they can still ring hollow -- and set off the BS detectors that are wired into every employee. Let’s go easy on Ray. Pick on me instead. I work hard to be straightforward and down-to-earth in my presentations and workshops, but one time I got scolded on someone’s post-session feedback sheet. "Skip the bizspeak," the person wrote. "I turned off after the first three buzzwords." Ouch. Ever since, I’ve been choosing my words with extra care.

Okay, what about you and your vocabulary? If your colleagues will be honest with you, ask them for an honest buzz-term appraisal. In the meantime, go through this sample list and fess up by putting a checkmark in front of each term or phrase you’ve used during the past four weeks:

· change catalyst · performance-based
· core competency · re-engineer
· crucial differentiator · results-driven
· customer-focused · rightsize
· cutting edge · smartsize
· knowledge management · strategic gap
· leading edge · strategic visioning
· mission focused · team dynamics
· principle-centered · thought leadership

If you can go through this list without checking a single buzz-term, congratulations. You’re in a very small minority of straight talkers. Even if you check as many as four of the terms above, you’re doing pretty well.

End up with five or more checkmarks?

Then get proactive, tap your own robust intellectual capital, and upgrade your word choice. What you need is nothing less than a world-class paradigm shift in how you leverage the English language.

Workforce, February 2002, pp. 26-27 -- Subscribe Now!

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