How jargon hurt the culture at GM


Stan HONDASTAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The unsparing and harshly critical report from attorney Anton Valukas' investigation into General Motors, which held its annual shareholders meeting Tuesday morning, finds an array of culprits behind the company's ignition switch crisis. It cites a lack of urgency in the culture and, as GM CEO Mary Barra described it, "a pattern of incompetence." It blames an unwillingness of those in the know to reconsider their conclusions, and a dizzying number of committees with little clear accountability.

The report also makes several references to the role corporate speak played in the wrongdoing. Typically, we think of corporate speak as trivialities of modern office life that are annoying but harmless. We cringe when we hear colleagues promise a "deliverable," complain about "pain points" or use "ask" as a noun. We laugh at games of business language bingo and NCAA-style brackets to pick the worst workplace jargon.

But as the Valukas report shows, these idioms and corporate cliches are more than just buzzwords that threaten our linguistic sanity. At GM they stood to mask real meaning, obscured leaders' responsibilities, and created labels that hindered the critical thinking needed to keep real problems from getting worse. 

A Wall Street Journal article Friday detailed the references to PowerPoint in the Valukas report and how slide decks worked against direct communication. In an article titled "Did PowerPoint Ruin GM?" Joseph White writes: "What if someone had simply stood up, without a visual prop, and said: 'People are dying.'"

But that kind of plain language wasn't just missing in PowerPoint slides.

For instance, early on, the report shares how GM engineers defined the ignition switch problem as a "customer convenience" problem. "Once so defined, the switch problem received less attention, and efforts to fix it were impacted by cost considerations that would have been immaterial had the problem been properly categorized in the first place," the report states.

The scope of the problem went far beyond labels, of course. The Valukas report reveals a breathtaking "failure to understand, quite simply, how the car was built." But it also shows how much language, once applied to a problem, can obfuscate the real issue. 

The report also recounts how one vice president of global quality was asked by a top GM lawyer to be a "champion" for the investigation into the Cobalt's "non-deployment" problem. This executive, and presumably the lawyer, understood the term "champion" to mean "an executive who helps a team remove roadblocks and obtain resources."

But when that executive retired and the lawyer asked another person to "step in as a 'champion,'" the new executive says he didn't remember the use of the term and thought his job was "energiz[ing] the team" and finding solutions to the problem, while it was another team's job to search for its "root cause." He told investigators "that had he been leading the investigation, and understood the matter was urgent, he would have behaved differently—clearing his schedule and working aggressively."

Such miscommunication would be a lot less likely if the company hadn't used nebulous sports analogies like "champion," especially in describing someone's job. "Guy in charge of an urgent investigation" is clunky, yes. But it's also much clearer.

Finally, the Valukas report shows not only how corporate speak was used at General Motors to ill effect, but how certain euphemistic words were even encouraged. Though the report doesn't draw a specific link here to the ignition switch failure, it cites a formal training presentation that told employees to write "smart" and not use "judgmental adjectives and speculation." This is just one example of a general corporate culture where workers were taught not to say "problem" but to use "issue," "condition" or "matter" instead. Rather than write "defect," the report states, employees were told they should write "does not perform to design."

Yet "defect" is exactly the type of word that should have been used. When companies couch problems in soft, vague terms, employees' response to solving them can be just as mushy and ineffective.

Read also:

What GM could do to change its culture

The worst workplace jargon

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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