Manipulative Managementspeak

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is an essay about today's use of manipulative language in order to establish the effect that the workforce complies with company or organizational policies.

Submitted: February 25, 2017

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Submitted: February 25, 2017

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Manipulative Managementspeak

People who have read George Orwell’s work are familiar with the phenomenon of Newspeak, a highly manipulative new form of English used in the manipulative world described in 1984. As most people know, language can be used in a number of ways to manipulate responses in listeners or readers. Depending on the goals that the speaker or writer wishes to achieve. Unfortunately, a large number of people are completely unaware of the manipulation going on at the time. This essay deals with two examples of this type of manipulation, but many people will be able to come up with other examples.

You are professionals.

Modern managers use this expression or variations on it quite frequently in pep talks to groups of their subordinates. To the casual listener this might seem to be a compliment. The word professional is often associated with images of professional sports people or professional artists and other people we admire for the way in which they make their living. Envy on the accompanying life-style may even come into it. A lot of people would like to have that particular type of success and admiration themselves. So being called a professional puts us almost in the same category of those we admire. It all sounds very innocent. Unfortunately, it is not innocent at all. One of the key elements of the manipulative character of this type of utterance is the fact that the expressions are often used in meetings in which the audience is surrounded by peers. Bringing people together is always a good thing if you would like to get something done according to your –read management’s – wishes. Being together makes people feel good about belonging to that particular group, and people don’t want to be regarded to be the oddball by their peers, preventing them from digressing from the group norm.

It is time to take a closer look at the meaning of the word professional. A good dictionary will tells us that the word professional always indicates that money is paid for the activity in which one is involved in order to earn a livelihood, and that it is the opposite amateur. So calling an office worker a professional is a form of stating the obvious, to say the least, because no sane person will work in an office just because he thinks it is a nice hobby. You get paid for doing your job, so you are a professional.

Now it is time to look at the manipulative aspect of calling your employees professionals. Next time you hear the expression being used, it is always in the context of management wanting people to show a particular type of behaviour, usually something which could easily be considered to be more or less unpleasant by some individuals present at the meeting. Using phrases like: “You are all professionals, so ….” is a way of putting up a fence against criticism of the proposals that are being discussed. It works in a very subtle way. Keep in mind that the antonym of the word professional is amateur. If you don’t go along with the things discussed, you are not likely to say so, if it has been established that complying with what is being said is part of being called a professional. It would automatically mean that you put yourself in the position of being regarded to be an amateur. Now the subtle linking of the word professional with sports people etc. comes into play. A lot of people would have liked to become professional athletes of some sort, but for a whole range of reasons they became something completely different. One of those reasons could have been that the individual simply didn’t reach the level of expertise that was required to become a professional sportsperson. Mind, there could also have been other reasons, but a large number of people just assume that you were not good enough. When you do a job, you don’t want to be called an amateur, because, since you already get paid for the job, this can only mean that being called an amateur means, you are said not to be good enough to belong to your peer group, and nobody wants that to happen.

Knowing the mechanisms at work, it is easy to arm yourself against this manipulation; just don’t go along with it. An easy way of doing this is by stating your objections or questions in the following way – make sure you do it with a big smile on your face- “From my amateur point of view, it looks like …. etc.” You will notice that a number of people present at the meeting will show signs of relief, thus disarming the manager instantly, so his/her effort to manipulate becomes futile from that point onwards. Moreover, the manager attacking you after your remark, means losing face by showing he/she is a bad sport, and that’s also an image nobody wants to portray.

Flexible as we are …

This is another weapon in the management arsenal to manipulate employees. The psychology behind the manipulative character of this type of statement is very similar to the one we’ve seen previously. Again, it can be useful to look at the meaning of the word flexible, or better still, establish its antonym.

The pair of antonyms flexible and rigid, are closely intertwined in our psyche. Being flexible is regarded to be a good trait in people, but it would be an extremely bad characteristic in concrete, so the word itself doesn’t have to be positive or negative. The same thing can be said about the word rigid. Yet, when we call someone rigid, we usually don’t think very favourable about that particular person. So, by management calling their workforce flexible, they automatically, but in a much disguised way, threaten those present that they’d better go along with what is being said, or they will show themselves to be rigid, a qualification nobody wants to get from his/her peers. Disarming this type of manipulation can be done in a similar way as disarming the remarks about being professionals. Just say: “Rigid as I am ….” Again, don’t forget to smile. Also always keep in mind that in the relationship between management and worker, flexibility is usually a one-way street; employees are expected to be flexible, and management can be as hard and as rigid as concrete.

This essay dealt with two clear examples of people being manipulated on the work floor in very subtle ways, by using expressions which may seem to be mere compliments at first sight. Yet, it would be naïve to think these are the only examples which exist. The genuinely observant employee will find it quite easy to come up with more examples, modern managers already know those examples, otherwise they shouldn’t have been hired as managers, (manipulation intended).


© Copyright 2018 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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