Watch your language: a guide to avoiding workplace jargon

Managerial language, suitspeak, weasel words… it’s hard to say exactly what we dislike about them, and why we groan inwardly when we hear one. They start as buzzwords, then worm their way into our consciousness and become part of our own language. When it’s time to write a report or blog post, we can’t find an alternative.

Here’s a list of some clichés to avoid like the plague (did you see what I did there?) and some substitutes.

They won’t work in every situation, because clear writing depends largely on context and audience. Try them when next you write an article for social media or copy for your website. You might find your prose starts to cut through the noise, like an opera singer at a football game.

The examples I’ve used were collected over two days on LinkedIn and Facebook, plus a couple of websites I routinely consult. Here’s the list.


But what’s wrong with these terms?

  1. Sometimes your readers/customers won’t understand the terminology you use because it’s just not part of their world. Some of them are just plain hard to understand.
  2. Their tone is often evasive and indirect. Most of the time, plain, direct language would be more suited to what you’re trying to convey. Here’s a real example:

‘[xxx] gives you and your account manager visibility over which elements of your content marketing are actually working by collecting data across all your activities.’

I could understand what they propose to do for me – and I’d be more likely to feel I could work with them – if they said something like:

You and your account manager can see what parts of your content marketing are effective, because we measure them for you.

And most importantly,

  1. It makes you sound just like everybody else. Content marketing is everywhere. Just one platform, LinkedIn, had 467 million users at last count. That’s a lot of competition for attention. Why sound like a corporate drone when you can say things in a fresh, original style?

Words to stop using. Just don’t.

Innovate. Everybody’s innovating so routinely that the term has become meaningless. Same for passionate, savvy and unicorns. Challenges and solutions. They’re tired and worn out, so give them a rest.

There’s a great book on the topic. In Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, author Steven Poole says that while there’s nothing wrong with jargon in context, we can ‘fight back against the filthy tide of verbal slurry that treats us like idiotic automata every day’.

The battle starts with you.

What workplace words do you find unbearable? Do you have a simpler substitute? Let’s add them to the list and create the Thesaurus of Bearable Contentspeak together.



How to hold effective performance discussions that produce better results


This post was written for Challenge Consulting.

More regular and less structured feedback and conversations are rapidly replacing the annual review. At a recent open day at the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) I listened to Kerrie Yates, Consultant at Catalyst Learning and Development, explain exactly how to go about holding an effective, productive performance conversation. This is what I learned.

Many managers find conversations about performance the most difficult part of their job. Participants in the AIM session ‘Effective performance discussions’ expressed the opinion that they were not insufficiently coached and trained, particularly when it came to discussions about behavioural issues, rather than measurable KPIs. They agreed that more of their time was spent on poor performers than good performers, as poor performers required more managing, attention and training  – at the expense of good performers, who were often penalised by being piled with more work. Many expressed the fear that star performers would leave the team or the organisation because they did not feel positively acknowledged for their high performance.


Yates identified these blocks to effective performance conversations, as felt by managers:

  • Uncertainty about their capability to handle the conversation
  • Lack of time to hold regular conversations with all team members
  • Lack of perceived benefit – a perception there are no measurable outcomes
  • Not wanting to hurt another’s feelings
  • Seeing the conversation as too difficult, and so moving it elsewhere (usually to HR)
  • Having to deal with an organisational culture of non-recognition (Hint: pay everybody enough to take the issue of remuneration off the table.)

The session then focused on how to have a performance conversation and how to deliver feedback, beginning with thorough preparation.


Give the team member notice, and set expectations for the conversation. Nobody will respond well if they feel ambushed. Say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that your last two reports have been late and I’d like to talk to you about that. How about straight after lunch?’ The person is clear what the conversation will be about and can think about their response.

Be fully prepared and know and discuss the facts. Consider the solutions rather than only focusing on the problem. Describe the impact of the problem at the individual, team and organisational levels. For the late report, for example, you may say, ‘Because the report was a day late, I was unable to review the figures and there was an error in the budgeting. When I presented it to management, they picked up the error and it seemed like our team hadn’t done the research properly. I’m concerned that we might not get the budget to get the project done.’

Consider how the person might respond, and be prepared for their response. Think about how you feel about having the conversation: What language will you use? Do you have some responses ready? Of course, you can’t control every situation, such as when issues outside the workplace are affecting a team member’s performance and they respond by bursting into tears, for example.


Positive feedback is aimed at acknowledging good performance and promoting more of it. However, saying something like, ‘Well done on the report’ is not enabling the person to understand what was done well, and to do more of it. Yates offered the following, stressing that it is a guide and not a script:

  1. Give a concrete example of good performance. ‘Your report was well-structured and clear; good job’.
  2. Say what the impact was. ‘That meant I was able to give a really succinct presentation to the board.’
  3. Say what the benefit was. ‘I was able to get across the team’s funding needs and I think we will get what we need to run the project, so well done.’

Feedback for improvement is more challenging, but the following framework makes it less stressful. At all stages, ask open questions (i.e. ones that cannot be answered yes, or no, or with any other one-word answer).

  1. Identify the problem. ‘Your report was late, and this has happened three times now.’
  2. Say what the impact was – including the impact on others such as the team or customers. ‘I had to go to the management meeting without being able to read through it and so I was unprepared for questions from the CEO and CFO.’
  3. Listen to their reaction and explanation. Really listen, without preconceptions or judgment.
  4. Look for solutions. This depends on their reaction. It might be that the deadline was unreasonable and they need more time in future, or that they need an editor or proofreader at the final stages of report writing in future.
  5. Say what the impact of this will be. ‘If I give you a day longer to get them done, we can get all reports finished in time I can be properly prepared for management meetings’.
  6. Say what the benefit of this will be. ‘I’ll be much more likely to get out budget requests approved and we can then go ahead with the revenue-generating project we want to work on.’

Performance measurement and holding performance discussions is complex, and people are messy (and I’m not referring to the state of your desk). As Yates stressed, there is no ‘magic formula’ for performance reviews that will work in every case. Take the situation where a talented person is in the wrong job because the company was desperate to fill the position when they hired; or where a high performer’s performance drops, but they still outperform the average employee. These situations can give rise to complex conversations. Hopefully you will find some pointers to holding effective performance discussions.

AIM has many events and resources Australia-wide for mangers, leaders and aspiring leaders: see

Bosses have jobs; leaders build companies

The day you’ve planned and worked for has arrived: you’ve been promoted to manager. You know that your leadership skills are going to be needed in the coming weeks and months, but what exactly are they?

Perhaps you’re suffering from ‘impostor syndrome’ ­– the feeling that you aren’t really up to a leadership role, and that sooner or later this will become obvious. How do you develop leadership skills and feel confident in your ability to lead? Here’s our guide to shaping your leadership style in the first days, weeks and months in a new leadership position.heart-700141_1280

Be clear on your priorities. Start by focusing on just three things, and get those done with the help of your team. What are you trying to achieve? How will you measure success – both your own and those of your team members? Let your manager, your team and any other stakeholders know what you are prioritising in these first weeks and months, so that they understand your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help.

Being clear about your purpose and committing to your team and yourself is what leadership is about. Knowing what you want and who you are is the basis of being a good leader.

Listen and learn. An associate told me about a new manager who came on board from another organisation and immediately began changing every process in the team – even those that worked well. My friend had worked in the team for years and was a technical expert, but the new manager believed she had all the answers. If she had listened to her new team, and to the higher-ups, she would have won their respect and trust; instead she fragmented the team and was moved on within six months.

Spending time with your team and getting to know them on a personal level will mean you can inspire each person to do their best in the way that works for them. Motivation is different for everyone. Admitting your mistakes, learning them and discussing them with the team is a way of being authentic. Being authentic means you build trust and cooperation in your team.

Create a support network. Seek out a more experienced leader who can mentor you. This will not only improve your leadership skills, but it will also show you how to map your road to success in the organisation. An informal network of others in leadership positions can act as a sounding board and provide support if times get tough. A weekly coffee or eating lunch together is a good way to put that network in place.

Better still, you can hire a coach or sign up for a leadership training course. Challenge Consulting’s research has shown that leadership training increases median revenue by $31,000 per employee and productivity by 17-21%. Formal learning can help to address your concerns and questions in a systematic way, and the leadership journey need not be a lonely one.

Develop your communication skills. This includes working on your listening skills. Stephen R. Covey wrote that, ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’ When employees feel unheard they lose motivation, so make sure you don’t give the impression you know it all or are not interested in what your colleagues have to say.  Keep your audience in mind when you speak; simplify jargon and complex technical information when speaking to people whose job does not include working with those things.

Practice giving a presentation to boost your confidence, and think about joining an organisation such as Toastmasters or sign up for a class in writing or speaking for business.

Praise and acknowledge others. Do it immediately and your team will appreciate your feedback even more. Feedback is highly motivating and team members will appreciate immediate thanks, praise and even constructive criticism.  Learning to deliver constructive criticism is an art. You can read more about providing actionable feedback in our article about common feedback mistakes here.

Take time out to celebrate employees’ good performance and meeting the team or organisation’s goals. When employees feel acknowledged and empowered to do their best, productivity soars. An environment in which people want to work can be more motivating than money, and retaining good people is the hallmark of a good leader.

As small business coach Barry Moltz put it, ‘Bosses have jobs and leaders build companies’. So learn to be a leader.

The annual performance review: agony, ecstasy or just ticking the box?

I wrote this blog post for Challenge Consulting.

A year ago, Deloitte announced that they were getting rid of performance reviews. Research had shown, they argued, that a critical assessment was no longer the way to gather information about staff performance. Not only did they waste millions of hours, representing a huge cost, they were demotivating and inaccurate.

Other organisations, including Accenture, Google, Microsoft and NAB have also ditched the annual review and ranking system. They were convinced by their own research and by that of outside organisations that the system was not driving better performance.

If you hate performance reviews, either giving them or being on the receiving end, you’re not alone. A poll in the Sydney Morning Herald had 87% of participants agreeing that the ‘whole process is just a waste of time and doesn’t achieve much’, with only 5% agreeing that, ‘They force employees and managers to think beyond the daily grind and see how they are tracking’ and should be kept.

Kevin Murphy, a scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on performance appraisals, told the New Yorker that there were further issues:

  • Managers have incentives to inflate appraisals of their team members.
  • Feedback can make people less motivated and hurt relationships as it is often perceived as biased and unfair, even when it is accurate.
  • Organisations do a poor job of rewarding good evaluators and sanctioning bad ones.

‘As a result, annual appraisals end up as a source of anxiety and annoyance rather than a source of useful information’, Murphy told the New

Other reasons given for scrapping performance reviews include:

  • They focused on the last couple of months and on recent performance, rather than on the full year.
  • More than half of the performance rating reflects the traits of the person conducting the review rather than those of the person being rated, due to the conscious and unconscious biases of the reviewing manager.
  • They tend to reward the most self-promoting employees, who are not necessarily the best employees in the long term.
  • They reflect an outdated way of working, based on the time and motion studies of the early 20th century, seeking efficiency above all else.
  • The performance review process is the single biggest cause of claims for bullying, according to research by reputation management consultants Risk To Business, who write, ‘The link between performance management and workplace bullying is unequivocal.’

Supporters of the review process argue that it is not the performance review per se that is the problem, but how it is conducted and managed.  Rhonda Brighton-Hall, board member of the Australian Human Resources Institute, has said that it is the quality of the leadership, not the form the performance review takes, which establishes its effectiveness. Handled well, a performance review can increase motivation, reward productive employees by giving them more responsibility, identify training needs and confront problems in an honest way. Staff are able to set career objectives and ask for support in achieving them. Confrontations can be managed in a considered way, and open communication is encouraged.

Supporters argue that it is important to separate the performance review from a pay review, as employees will perceive a negative review – or even any adverse comments – as a way to avoid giving a raise. Separating the two processes allows the performance review to feel more collaborative.

In a fast-paced work environment, there is no doubt that slowing down and reflecting on performance is helpful and positive.  Those who have given up the annual performance review have typically replaced it with more regular and less structured feedback and conversations.

You’re wearing WHAT to the Christmas party?

My dad used to wear the same thing to work every day: dark suit, white shirt, sober patterned tie, black shoes and belt. My mum’s workplace had rules for women: no pants, no open-toed shoes, and always stockings, even in summer. It might have been hot and boring, but it sure was easy.

The rules have loosened, leaving us more able to express ourselves in today’s workplace, but also more confused. How casual should casual Fridays be? Should you really dress for the job you want rather than the one you have, or will that make you look unapproachable and over-ambitious? If you’re trying to set the standard for your team to follow, how will you interpret your organisation’s dress code? Even the advice to dress like the rest of the office is difficult if you are moving from one temporary assignment to another: before you see the workplace, how will you know what’s acceptable?

According to research by, 55% of workers agree that wearing business attire makes people more productive. And 20% also believe those who dress too casually are ‘slackers’.

The benefits of dressing well are clear. So here are three basic principles to remember about dressing for work. 

  1. How you look is an important part of your personal brand.

Research on job interviews showed that an observer could predict whether or not the interviewee would be offered the job from watching just the first 15 seconds of an interview. Looks matter, no doubt about it.

  1. If you are in any doubt, dress more formally and more conservatively.

Whether it was for meetings, dinners, interviews or your first day on the job, people I spoke to were unanimous that a more formal and conservative outfit did no harm (whereas anything revealing, sloppy or too casual could be the kiss of death).

  1. Outdated clothing makes you look out of touch.

Sticking to looks that have long passed their use-by date gives the impression that you can’t be bothered to keep up, and that your work habits may be as inflexible. This is particularly the case in image-conscious industries and workplaces.

So how do these three rules apply? Context is key, and it definitely pays to research the industry and the specific workplace if possible. The aim is not to stick out, but to show that you want to be part of the team.  When you dress in line with the rest of your organisation, you show that you are working in the right place.

In banking, law and finance, you can’t go wrong with a suit, neatly groomed hair and low-key accessories. Anything that shows off too much skin, is too brightly coloured or otherwise draws attention to itself is a no-no. In more creative industries, the code may be ‘business casual’, in which case wear a neat shirt with pants and a belt and leather shoes for men, or a modest dress or skirt that covers the thighs for women.

What about specific occasions? At this time of year, dressing for the Christmas party is top of mind. You may want to break out and show everybody what a party person you really are, but remember you are still at work. Plunging necklines, short, tight skirts or your favourite singlet and board shorts are not okay. By all means wear something fun that expresses your personality, but not to the extent that you are the talking point on Monday morning. Don’t deviate too much from your day-to-day look, and ask the party organiser or check the venue’s dress code if you are unsure.

One reason to dress neatly and appropriately every day is that you never know when you might be called on to meet with a client or prospect. You are the face of the organisation in these situations, and you should look the part. For women, keeping a jacket or a neat cardigan in your office to pop over a casual sleeveless dress is a good idea. Men should have a tie and a jacket handy, in a plain, neutral colour, to be ready in moments.

Job interviews present a situation in which dressing up is definitely better than dressing down. The interviewer will interpret your outfit and grooming as evidence of whether you ‘get it’ or not.  They will want to see that you know how to dress up, as they will assume you are quite capable of dressing down. Well-ironed, immaculate clothing, polished shoes, neat hair, minimal makeup for women and clean, manicured hands are vital.

Last word: body piercings and tattoos. Although they are becoming more acceptable in general, it’s probably wise to assume that they are not part of a professional look. Remove jewellery (apart from a pair of small earrings for women) and cover tattoos. Maybe they are acceptable in your workplace, but it doesn’t take much effort to hide them and they could make the difference between getting the job or landing the contract, or not. When in doubt, remember that there are very few occasions where being well dressed and well groomed will work against you.






Don’t eat sardines at your desk: the office guide to modern manners

Let me being by confessing that I don’t work in an office much any more. These days I’m free to make my own office rules. But I did a quick ask-around to find out what bothers people most about sharing their office space.people-314481_1280Everybody I spoke to works in an open-plan office and unpartitioned desks were the norm (it seems even the cubicle has gone the way of Betamax). ‘Hotdesking’ – where workstations are up for grabs each day ­– seemed to be on the rise.

The most common complaints were about behaviour that should be kept private.  It seems we haven’t yet negotiated the boundaries of privacy and sharing at work. So here, in no particular order, are some pet peeves, and what you can do to make sure you’re not treading on anybody’s toes.

Messy desks. Piles of paper that impinge on others’ desk space (and even floor space), dirty cups and personal stuff left lying around were a big area of complaint. Keep within your boundaries, and keep it neat. Don’t load up your pinboard with personal clutter either – especially if it may be offensive to some.

Tidy up at the end of the day. Your colleagues will really appreciate the gesture, as well as not being distracted or inconvenienced by your mess.

Loud, private phone conversations. Nobody wants to be distracted from their work by your instructions to the childminder or your catch-up about last night. If you must take private calls, everybody would prefer you to do it in a meeting room, the lobby or outside.

Set your phone to vibrate, because your amusing ringtone and constantly dinging alert sound annoys others more than you will ever realise.

Eating at your desk (and related transgressions). The number-one complaint was about strong smelling foods. One person’s vindaloo is another person’s durian, as it turns out.  Constant snacking and rustling, talking about your vegan superfood snack balls and gum chewing were mentioned too.

It seems that quietly eating a banana is okay, but in general confine meals and snacks to break times, and have them in the kitchen or lunchroom. You might think eating at your desk makes you look productive, but your colleagues would rather you didn’t.

The kitchen. Which brings us to the most contested space in the building: the office kitchen. Not loading/unloading the dishwasher, leaving a mess, forgetting your lunch in the fridge for a month, leaving the milk out… the list goes on.

Just clean up after yourself when you make something to eat or drink. Every single time. Then nobody has to put up one of those ‘Your mother doesn’t work here’ notes.

Smoking protocols. When you go out for a smoke break, your colleagues think you are a lazy bludger who takes way too many breaks. They also hate the way you smell when you come back to your desk.

Everybody would like it if you joined a quitting program, but if you can’t do that, confine it to lunch breaks.

Not ‘knocking’/chipping in. Just because there is no door, it doesn’t mean you should just walk in. Looming up behind somebody and suddenly talking loudly, popping your head over the divider and chiming in to conversations between others is not appreciated.

Never interrupt somebody who is wearing headphones, unless their desk is on fire. Headphones are the new ‘Do not disturb’ sign.

What is the policy in your workplace? Would you allow team members to attend to things on their devices in a meeting you ran? Do you think it is essential in a fast-paced workplace, or just bad manners? Leave your comments (politely)

How to use No to boost your chances of success

You are in your one-on-one meeting with your boss, and she asks you to take on a project. You hear yourself say, ‘Sure, I can do that’. And then the voice in your head says, ‘I’m already overloaded. How will I fit in one more thing? Maybe if I work back all week. Oh no, I have to do that other thing too. Why did I say yes?’


Sounds familiar? It seems we all have an inbuilt desire to please, and that means we often say yes when we really should be saying no. The project is just not a good use of our time right now. How do we say no to those up the hierarchy without sabotaging our prospects? We want to shine, to be noticed, to get that promotion. Can we learn to say no in a way that makes us look better than saying yes?

Do the groundwork. Work to your goals. It’s no good saying yes to everything that comes along until your plate is full, and then regretting that you genuinely have no capacity to do that one thing that will really help you to shine. You should have a good understanding of your personal, team and organisational goals. If what you are being asked to do is not in accordance with those goals, you need to say no.

Say something like, ‘That sounds really good, but it’s not in line with my priorities right now’.

Use the power of no to gain respect. Think about when you have offered somebody an opportunity and they turned it down. The chances are that if the refusal was polite and unambiguous, you respected the fact that the person was busy, and didn’t say yes and then fail to deliver. It’s a far better situation for both parties. The person asking for your time is not left frustrated when you delay or do a sub-standard job, and you free up your time to focus on the tasks that are aligned with your goals.

Say something like, ‘Although usually I would jump at the chance, right now I have too much on my plate to do it justice. But another time I would welcome the opportunity to do it.’

Keep your options open. If you really are saying no because you don’t have the time, say so. Goals change over time, and perhaps you will be able to work with that person or take on a similar project at another time, so don’t close the door. If a project is irresistible, ask your manager to go through all your tasks with you and see if some could be delegated to another person or put on hold while you work on the high-priority project. Your ability to plan and prioritise will be appreciated, and you may be surprised at how flexible you both can be.

Say something like, ‘I would really value the opportunity to work on the project. Do you think I could make a list of the tasks I have to do in the next [week/month/quarter] and go through them with you? I’m hoping you can help me to reprioritise so that I can fit this in as I really want to do it.’

Stop and think. Last, but perhaps most important: stop and think before you answer. It’s okay to say, ‘Can I get back to you on that?’ Give a deadline; be it in 15 minutes or by the end of the week. You gain respect by giving your considered answer rather than saying yes and then backtracking. It shows that you have thought about not wasting the other person’s time too. Your answer can be ‘not now’ rather than no. But remember to get back to them by the deadline, demonstrating that you value their time and that you are able to manage your own.

Say something like, ‘That really appeals to me. Can I check my schedule and get back to you by the end of the day?’

This post first appeared at Challenge Consulting