Sunday, July 2, 2017

Gobbledygook or Newspeak in Modern Workplaces

From time to time I write about the modern workplace; the well will never run dry when it comes to finding ideas to write about when it comes to such workplaces. I am especially interested in public sector workplaces, since they seem to embody (or aim to embody by design) the worst business philosophies and ideas that crawl out from under the slimy rocks where they’ve sprouted. Modern workplaces in Norway and elsewhere often adopt such philosophies and ideas uncritically and put them into operation without much discussion or rational consideration. I’ve written about them before, e.g. New Public Management, which is (fortunately for us) on its way out after its decade of tyranny. Ask most employees if they’ve been comfortable in their workplaces that uncritically adopted this philosophy, and their answers will be a chorus of No’s. 

The uncritical adoption of bad business philosophies into modern public sector workplaces goes hand in hand with the language of gobbledygook to support and defend them. If company leaders don’t want their employees to know what it is they are being subjected to, then gobbledygook is the language they use. Let’s call it Newspeak for modern workplaces (with apologies to George Orwell). It can be defined as a language that makes no sense whatsoever, either to its users or to its unfortunate listeners. Its aim is to create a smokescreen so that employees become confused or left in the dark about what is really going on. If you have ever been the recipient of emails that make no sense whatsoever, if you’ve asked a question and gotten a ‘non-answer’ that passes for an answer, then you have experienced gobbledygook. If you attempt to make sense of the enormous bureaucratic system around you, e.g. how to deal with the billing department, you will be met with a wall of people, all of whom are cc-ing each other in the myriad of emails sent back and forth to answer one tiny question—how do I bill so-and-so for the service performed for them. One tiny question is ‘non-answered’ by at least six or more people, none of whom can or will take responsibility for providing a substantive answer. This is cowardice by design, inbuilt into a system that is itself designed to dilute out responsibility so that no one can be taken for any wrongdoing that could arise down the road. How would anyone be able to track the countless email paths, conversations, etc. that are attached to one miniscule billing situation?

In this vein, it was interesting to read the remarks of a Norwegian leader (of a public sector workplace that deals out money to researchers) concerning his organization’s philosophy, translated here from Norwegian:

When the sectoral principle so strongly influences Norwegian research funding, it is all the more important that XXX has a real opportunity to create synergies of funds given with different logics, then we can create win-win situations where we can deliver both on goal A and Goal B for the same money.


For God’s sake, what does this mean? And it’s not the translation; it was just as difficult to understand the meaning in Norwegian. This is how we are ‘talked to’ on a daily basis, from leader’s commentaries to emails that makes no sense or that provide no answers whatsoever. This is what we face at every turn. Meaningless pronouncements with bloated language that create a world of nonsense. Nonsense—literally, non-sense. Lewis Carroll would be proud (the author of Alice in Wonderland for those of you who wonder, whose Alice fell down the rabbit hole into a world that made no sense). It would be alarming if it wasn’t comical. It is no longer comical in my opinion. This is how many public sector workplaces operate on a daily basis. I pity those employees who prize speaking clearly and getting the job done as their goals. It is nearly impossible to cut through the jungle of gobbledygook on the way toward those goals. 


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