Learning the Language of Management

The Language of Management
Written by Paula Gray

The challenge of hearing and being heard by management

Managers sit in a very difficult space in the corporate world today, and you’ve probably noticed the side effects.  They must valiantly defend and support their team while pushing forward with the company’s objectives – some of which they may not be able to divulge to that very team.  They are told they must be politically correct, avoid bias, and never say anything that could potentially be construed as inappropriate or offensive.  Heck, there are contexts where “Good Morning” might be potentially interpreted as offensive.  And they are under increasing pressure to wring every last ounce of productivity from their team members but do it in a tactful and diplomatic way.  Be a slave driver, but do it with compassion and authenticity?!? Whaaa??

So let’s cut them a wee bit of slack.  There are things you can do to make yourself a bit more savvy in understanding them.

NO, we’re not going to give you a “dictionary” where you look up something they said and read…If a manager says “This” means = “that” or “that” if “this”. (see figure)   It’s terribly naïve to think a person (or organization) is that simple.  Humans are complex.

You already possess the latest and greatest technology…it’s your observation skills.

One important fact we learn in the study of cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and human behavior is that people often SAY things that don’t represent how they actually feel or what they believe.  What people say and what they do are often inconsistent.  And this may or may not be intentional so don’t necessarily think they are trying to pull a fast one on you.  But you will need to fine tune your observation skills.

So how do you decipher “management speak?”  How do you read between the lines?  It’s all about context and patterns.  Context is the environment, issues, and circumstances surrounding what they say.  I have seen managers’ tones change drastically in a meeting with their peers, in an effort to assert their dominance; or become very conciliatory when addressing their EVP.  They may need to appear confident and sure in a budget meeting while you, the team, are aware that there are still many unresolved issues and questions.  So if you hear something from your manager that doesn’t feel quite right, consider the context.  Is there another issue at play, like an old rivalry between peers, or a potential upcoming promotion?  This may be having an impact on what they can/will/are able to say.

Patterns to look for include themes that run through the way in which your manager expresses him/her self.  I know an executive who constantly uses war analogies; everything is a battle or fight.  Ideas get shot down, obliterated or die.  His team members are good soldiers.  By understanding his patterns and the way he looks at issues, you suddenly get a view into his world and can understand his “language.” This type of pattern also denotes a level of power, authority, and certainty.  This manager may be less likely to listen to input or feedback unless it’s in his language.

I know another manager who is all about collaboration, needing to get permission and buy-in before making decisions.  His language includes a lot of hedges, hesitations, and politeness.  This type of pattern often denotes a lower level of perceived authority or power.  By understanding this “language,” you can see how this manager may have trouble making decisions and how it may affect his management style.  Communicating with this manager by offering an assurance of approval or agreement with other key figures will be paramount.

Management has as many languages as there are managers.  Your job is not to memorize what a single statement “means” but rather learn the entire “language.”  And that’s as simple as paying attention to context and patterns and filling in the bigger picture with what you have observed.

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.