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How to speak ManagementSpeak (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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We had company over the weekend. My youngest daughter and new son-in-law (a phrase I’m still getting used to) came to visit, which meant taking time out to write a new KJR just wasn’t going to happen.

So instead, enjoy this oldie but very, very goodie (in my not very humble opinion, at least). I’ll be back live next week.

– Bob


Dear Bob,

I know this is a rather odd question, but I need your help with ManagementSpeak. No, it’s not translating it, it’s me translating to it!

I’ve been told that although I speak very well to and/or with end-users, I need to work more on talking with upper management. Three different managers have suggested this, so for the sake of my career and IS survival, I’m taking them seriously.

I’m pretty sure the very thing my manager wants is what you lampoon in your columns. Do you have any suggestions on learning how to translate into ManagementSpeak instead of your normal practice of translating from it? Just as important, can you tell me how to not snicker while I’m doing it?

Dancing around issues and trying to put a positive spin on everything, even when they are potential issues that need to be addressed, seems rather hypocritical. However, in the interest of my career, I have to at least try to overcome this particular “weakness.” Any suggestions, thoughts, or comments would be greatly appreciated.

– Talkin’ Trash in Tennessee

Dear Talkin’,

Here are a few suggestions that may help out. They may sound cynical, but they’re intended to help you be more persuasive, not manipulative. Use them with restraint, or you’ll go home every day feeling like you need a shower.

Rule #1: Never say “no.” You can present alternatives and estimate costs. You can explain that you don’t have the authority to say “yes” on your own. You can “see what the committee thinks about it.” “No” wrecks your image.

Rule #2: Never argue. “I think you’re wrong” just entrenches your opponent. If possible, make your own idea sound like a simple modification to your opponent’s moronic notion. If that isn’t possible, you can usually get away with, “I used to think the exact same thing. Then I ran across a book by Irving Slobodkin, and it made an interesting point.” That way you aren’t arguing — it’s Slobodkin who’s arguing.

Rule #3: Never present an idea as new or original. “I’ve read that some other companies are doing this [this being your great idea] when they’ve found themselves in this situation,” is far better. Why? First, new ideas are risky; “others are doing it” reduces the hazard. Second, nobody inside your company is allowed to be an expert. Why? That would make them better than the rest of us — who do you think you are, anyway? By quoting the experts rather than presenting yourself as one, you maintain the appearance of humility.

Rule #4: Find the upside. There are, after all, no problems, only opportunities. To avoid the cliche, make it a question: “How can we turn this to our advantage?” Many problems really are opportunities in disguise. Most are solvable challenges when faced with the right attitude but disasters when faced with the wrong one. (Don’t be asinine, though. The atmosphere gets icky when managers say brainless things like, “Don’t think of it as being unemployed and unable to feed your family. Think of it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons.”)

Understanding why you should follow these rules should help you keep a straight face and stay inside the fine line that separates diplomacy from stupidity on the one side and simple deception on the other.

Management has a lot in common with chess strategy. Each move you make has more at stake than achieving a single objective. Each should help you build a strong position as well. That means your speech should enhance relationships and alliance while avoiding the creation of antagonism or antagonists.

If all you want is to be right all the time, fine — just forget about your management aspirations. Being right is for staff. Leadership roles require you to be effective as well. Among the many skills this requires is the ability to present intrinsically unpleasant notions in ways that make them seem palatable.

Think of it this way: Somebody once figured out how to make raw oysters sound like a delicacy, not a pile of slimy goo. Sometimes, when you’re leading people, you have to achieve the same, seemingly insurmountable goal or nothing good will ever happen.

Comments (9)

  • Nailed it

  • Informative, though not happy. If I had known these rules, I could have understood my workplaces much better, and been mindful about not having a career involving management. I don’t agree that these rules are always necessary to get things done, but I don’t believe that they are never necessary to get things done, either. (pardon the double negative)

    It’s why I don’t dislike politicians they way some do. Sometimes knowing how to speak “management speak” appropriately has saved millions of lives over the course of history. But only using management speak eventually leads to a complete loss of credibility and power, and the wrong things get done.

    Good article.

  • I wish I had read this years ago. Thanks for the good advice!

  • Tie projects/work to KPI of boss/executive. Not easy, but any IT manager who gets the reputation of increasing bonus checks is speaking the clearest language.

  • I believe it should be “ran across a book by Bob Lewis” rather than “Irving Slobodkin”. Insert shameless book promotion here.

  • Bob, I missed this the first time around … so glad you put it out there again. Articles like this are what kept me renewing my InfoWorld subscriptions for a few decades. You never disappoint. Ever. Thanks.

  • A gem

Comments are closed.