Brandt On Leadership -- The Spin Doctor Is In

Bad news? Rotten profits? Take two euphemisms and call me in the morning.

Of all the abilities required to rise through the corporate ranks, none is more important than learning the mysterious language of Euphemismo.

Euphemismo (from the Greek, euphemismos, to "use auspicious words") is the soothing balm that turns panic-driven mass layoffs into "long-planned corporate restructurings" and the magic music that transforms money-losing dogs into "profit-challenged activities with significant upsides." With Euphemismo you can charm customers, shaft shareholders and bamboozle bosses all the way to the top -- a position from which no less an authority than Humpty Dumpty, that imperious CEO of old, could intone: "When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

For those just getting acquainted with the wonders of Euphemismo, here's a quick guide to its four major uses:

Delay: No activity is more important to corporate survival than stalling, and no language is more useful in procrastination than Euphemismo. For example, that idiotic idea your whackjob peer just spouted at the weekly department meeting isn't really the dumbest *$%@! thing you've ever heard; in your new vocabulary, it's merely "interesting" or "intriguing." Or, if it's really dangerous and others seem ready to jump off the cliff with Mr. Nutball, you can call it "bold." Any of these words will seem to indicate your respect for the idea; so much so, in fact, that it will require further study. And then a committee. And then a pilot project. Until finally, a year later, you can throw it out the back door with yesterday's donuts.

Excuses: No manager worth his salt goes to a meeting without a quiver of excuses for anything that's gone wrong. But to make them palatable to senior management, you'd better use Euphemismo. A few favorites and their definitions:

  • Seasonality: Revenues were off last quarter and we have no idea why, but there was a big storm somewhere. Maybe the rain (snow, wind) made customers stay home more. Or go out. Or whatever we need to tell shareholders.
  • Pricing pressures: Customers won't pay more for the same old clunkers in different packages, and they keep using China to beat our heads in. There's nothing new in the pipeline, either.
  • Unforeseen externalities: We were too dumb to plan for a downturn, and we got caught with our pants down. Please don't think it's our fault, though, because most of our competitors were just as stupid.

Pretension: The up-and-coming executive can look smarter than he or she actually is thanks to Euphemismo's meaningless jargon -- e.g., "let's not boil the ocean" -- and its clever grammatical tricks that morph ordinary terms into important-sounding buzzwords. For instance, boring nouns like incentive, operation and product become fresh and sexy again when turned into snappy verbs with a simple "-ize;" what go-getter wouldn't want to "incentivize" his team by "operationalizing" an initiative to "productize" an idea? Genius!

Obfuscation: Euphemismo is at its best in making down seem up, bad seem good and disaster like glory. Watch a troubled department vanish in an instant just by being re-christened a "Center of Excellence." Or consider that while it may look like a CEO is firing hundreds of lifetime employees and reneging on their pension plans, in actuality he's "redeploying corporate assets" and "stabilizing the corporation's long-term commitments to retirees."

Perhaps the most beautiful thing of all about Euphemismo is that if you use it long enough, you can end up believing it yourself. At which point some unkind soul might say that you're completely full of crap, but you'll know that he or she is just jealous of the fact that you've learned how to play the game.

Oh, and of your "deep appreciation for the complex nature of truth."

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

TAGS: Talent
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