Words Matter: The Financial, Spiritual and Cognitive Cost of Language Obfuscation
Laura Rittenhouse is a 21st century Orwell, who scours shareholder letters for "cliches, weasel words, jargon, hyperbole, nonsensical statements, and overused words."]
"Good prose is like a windowpane," wrote George Orwell when he was evaluating his own body of work in 1946. When he had lacked a strong motive, Orwell observed, he produced "lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."
Three years later Orwell published the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he explored the much more sinister problem in language we refer to as doublespeak. Totalitarian regimes don't use transparent language. The fictional Oceanian province, which is in a state of perpetual war, uses language as a weapon, distorting meaning in order to make the historical record conform to the Ingsoc party line.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published 64 years ago today. But what would Orwell think of the types of government and corporate communications we see today?
The investor-relations specialist, Laura Rittenhouse, is a 21st century Orwell, who scours shareholder letters for "cliches, weasel words, jargon, hyperbole, nonsensical statements, and overused words." These garner point deductions in her Rittenhouse Rankings, a survey that grades 100 big companies based on seemingly unquantifiable metrics relating to corporate culture and candor.
FOG is the acronym for Rittenhouse's methodology. It stands for "fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities." Rittenhouse's analysis reveals that companies that use transparency in corporate communications (like Berkshire Hathaway) greatly outperform companies that use tortured language constructions and obfuscation (like Enron).
So words matter. A letter from a CEO can be a canary in the coal mine, as was the case with Enron. Alternatively, the legendary CEO Jack Welch’s letters were not only clear, but fun to read and informative. Moreover, Rittenhouse tells Big Think, language obfuscation is deeply impacting our culture. Neuroscience is starting to scratch at the surface of how words shape how we think. And so there is not only a cultural and financial cost, but indeed a deep spiritual and cognitive cost, to language obfuscation.
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According to TwoFold CEO Alison McMahon, a leader who doesn't care (or can't pretend to care) about his or her employees isn't much of a leader at all.
Why do people quit their jobs? Surely, there are a ton of factors: money, hours, location, lack of interest, etc. For Alison McMahon, an HR specialist and the CEO of TwoFold, the biggest reason employees jump ship is that they're tired of working for lousy bosses.
By and large, she says, people are willing to put up with certain negatives as long as they enjoy who they're working for. When that's just not the case, there's no reason to stick around:
Nine times out of ten, when an employee says they're leaving for more money, it's simply not true. It's just too uncomfortable to tell the truth.
Whether that's true is certainly debatable, though it's not a stretch to say that an inconsiderate and/or incompetent boss isn't much of a leader. If you run an organization or company, your values and actions need to guide and inspire your team. When you fail to do that, you set the table for poor productivity and turnover.
McMahon offers a few suggestions for those who want to hone their leadership abilities, though it seems that these things are more innate qualities than acquired skills. For example, actually caring about your workers or not depending wholly on HR thinking they can do your job for you.
It's the nature of promotions that, inevitably, a good employee without leadership skills will get thrust into a supervisory position. McMahon says this is a chronic problem that many organizations need to avoid, or at least make the time to properly evaluate and assist with the transition.
But since they often don't, they end up with uninspired workers. And uninspired workers who don't have a reason to stay won't stick around for long.
Read more at LinkedIn.
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