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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Feb 28, 2020


We all know leaders that love using jargon. This doesn’t just lead to eye-rolls - recent research demonstrates that jargon damages our ability to lead.



Hello and welcome to episode 68 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore how jargon damages our ability to lead.

We all know leaders that love using jargon. They’re always using acronyms and spouting the latest organisational buzz words. But, beyond the usual eye-rolls the jargon junky elicits, is there any other impact? Recent research suggests that the use of jargon hampers our ability to lead others effectively. 

One definition of jargon is “special words or expressions that are used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”. Jargon helps those in the know to feel more part of an exclusive group. But that exclusiveness comes, by definition, at the exclusion of others. Jargon can easily create a barrier that reinforces insiders and outsiders.

As a management consultant, I came across a lot of jargon. I learnt quickly to ask what jargon words meant, knowing I had to work them into a report at some point. Once you let the jargon word pass the first time, it just became more difficult to find out what the word meant later.

Sometimes we are so immersed in our environment that we don’t even recognise the jargon we’re using. It’s often highly specific to our group or organisation. Recently I saw a presentation which included 14 acronyms on one PowerPoint slide. While the mostly insider audience nodded along, I was mystified. That’s not a big deal in that case as I was just an observer, but I wonder how it felt for those in the audience who were new to the organisation and were potentially reluctant to ask what the sea of TLAs (or Three Letter Acronyms) meant.

And jargon happens across cultures too. On my first business trip to the USA I naively thought it would be pretty similar to Australia given our shared language and cultural heritage. I quickly figured out that a slide deck was code for a PowerPoint presentation - a term that has now made its way around the world. At the local department store it took me a little while longer to work out that the “men’s personal furnishings” area was where the underpants were sold, and not a department specialising in replacing pants with credenzas. But then a colleague described a service offering as being “from soup to nuts”. Given the context, I correctly assumed this meant from start to finish, but I couldn’t picture a meal that started with soup and ended with nuts. When I asked him about the phrase he had no idea where it came from either. It turns out “soup to nuts” is a uniquely United States expression that is rarely used in other parts of the world. In fact it refers to a fairly typical 1800s multiple course meal which did indeed start with soup and end with port and nuts. On a side note, the phrase originally goes back to a similar Latin phrase meaning “from eggs to apples”. But the use of the term made me feel like an outsider in a strange land. Saying the service covered everything from start to finish would have been easier on us both. But then again I come from a country that calls traffic cones “witch’s hats”, so I’m not really one to pass cultural judgement.

In leadership there’s always a risk of information being lost in translation and people being made to feel excluded. Using jargon just makes the situation worse.

Research published just last month reconfirms that jargon reduces the ability for people to process information. It’s as if jargon makes information harder to hear. That’s not overly surprising and replicates previous studies. What’s interesting is their finding that the impact on processing information persists even if definitions of terms are included. So even if I explain what the jargon means, I’m still losing my audience in the process.

The research shows that using jargon has three main impacts:

  1. People understand less

  2. People identify with the message and messenger less

  3. People are less interested in finding out more about the topic

I’ve talked before about the importance of building connections with others through warmth and competence (episode 14 if you want to listen again). People who use jargon in an attempt to demonstrate competence might reduce their ability to build connection.

Leaders play a significant role in helping others to feel like they belong. This research demonstrates that if you want them to belong faster, cut down the jargon.

So how do we reduce the use of jargon in the workplace? One technique I’ve seen is a jargon jar. You may have come across swear jars in the past, where people add a small amount of money each time they swear. It’s a light hearted way of making them more aware of their behaviour. Well, you can do the same for jargon. As a leader, model it yourself and get those coins ready - you may need them.

Okay - I think we’ve covered the subject of jargon from soup to nuts, or indeed from eggs to apples. Now you just need to figure out what jargon is being used in your workplace and make an effort to reduce it.

A big shout out to those who have provided a rating of the podcast over the past few weeks. That always pushes up the podcast charts and helps new people to find us. Have a great week.



Hillary C. Shulman, Graham N. Dixon, Olivia M. Bullock, Daniel Colón Amill. The Effects of Jargon on Processing Fluency, Self-Perceptions, and Scientific EngagementJournal of Language and Social Psychology, 2020; 0261927X2090217 DOI: 10.1177/0261927X20902177