The business phrasebook

From The Economist:

Reed hastings has built the culture at Netflix around it. Ray Dalio made it a founding principle at Bridgewater, a successful investment fund. “Radical candour” is the idea that bracing honesty is the best way to run a business: no one dances around the truth, and swifter feedback improves performance.

Most firms rely on a messier doctrine. People rarely say what they mean, but hope that their meaning is nonetheless clear. Think Britain, but with paycheques. To navigate this kind of workplace, you need a phrasebook.

“I hear you”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point
Actual meaning: Be quiet

“Let’s discuss this offline”

Ostensible meaning: We shouldn’t waste other people’s valuable time
Actual meaning: Let’s never speak of this again (see also: “Let’s put a pin in it”)

“We should all learn to walk in each other’s shoes”

Ostensible meaning: Shared understanding results in better outcomes
Actual meaning: I need you to know that my job is a living hell

“I’m just curious…”

Ostensible meaning: I’d like to know why you think that…
Actual meaning: …because it makes no sense to anyone else

. . . .

“Do you have five minutes?”

Ostensible meaning: I have something trivial to say
Actual meaning: You are in deep, deep trouble

“Let’s handle this asynchronously”

Ostensible meaning: We’ll each work on this task in our own time
Actual meaning: I have to go to my Pilates class now

“It’s on the product roadmap”

Ostensible meaning: It’ll be done soon
Actual meaning: It won’t be done soon

Link to the rest at The Economist

10 thoughts on “The business phrasebook”

    • Hearing the word “metrics” reminds me of clueless political hacks bleating at me about kick pleats in uniform skirts when I couldn’t get weapons training or essential parts at my overseas duty station. Grrrrrrr!

  1. I thought you were going to list Andy Borowitz or The Onion as the source for these (even though I know they’re probably accurate).

    I do have a mission statement for the WIP:
    “Mission statement: to make the mainstream reader live three lives so closely from the inside, right behind the eyeballs, that reading PC is a rollercoaster ride which makes the ending inevitable and utterly believable.”

    It reminds me what I’m doing. I find it useful.

  2. ‘“Radical candour” is the idea that bracing honesty is the best way to run a business: no one dances around the truth, and swifter feedback improves performance.’

    Does that go both ways? Are subordinates radically candid with their managers? Or does this only flow downhill? As a general rule, people who pride themselves on their candor tend to be insufferable. I suspect that managers enjoy the privilege, but don’t extend this to those below them.

  3. I’ve been on both ends of the well-meaning versions of this sort of candor in various sizes of enterprise. In my experience, there are three types of spurs to these conversations. (I’m ignoring the dishonest squelches/put-downs/dodge responses — those are loathsome. But I do believe (perhaps naively) that it is appropriate for channels to exist to pass complaints/suggestions upward.)

    1) This is stupid for our business, and here’s why. I have an idea for a fix.

    2) This is wrong ethically, and maybe criminally. We shouldn’t do this.

    3) I don’t like this (but I can’t articulate it any better than that).

    I can listen or fight for (1) all day long — that’s part of any (serious) manager’s job. If convinced, my job is to carry the same fight upward, with even better data/arguments, in order to improve the business.

    You sometimes get management disputes over (2). If you feel strongly enough about these, and you can’t change corporate behavior, then you can always leave (and may have a duty to do so). Sometimes I’ve been able to convince others in management to “do the right thing”. When I’ve failed, sometimes all you can do is leave — I’ve done that. (And found myself running the creditors’ committee for the bankruptcy of a public company as a private individual, so I guess (no, I know from the opened books afterward) I was right.

    For (3), well, a seasoned individual should be able to either move it to (1) or (2), or else just grow up and accept that there are other legitimate enough points of view, and that business is an imperfect hierarchy. When people reporting to me used a (3), I believed that part of my job as a manager was to help them get the issue articulated well enough to become a (1) or (2) so that it could actually be discussed on its objective merits. Sometimes that couldn’t be done — the person failed to get it out of category (3). Against subjective complaints that have neither evidence nor framing, even the gods are helpless.

  4. One of the first things you learn in the corporate world is that when an executive says “Tell me what you think” he or she really means “Tell me what I want to hear.”

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