Can Jargon Sometimes Be Our Friend?

language team dynamics Aug 25, 2022

If you’ve been in a leadership position for a while, maybe even if you’ve just been in the workforce for a while, you’ve probably heard some version of “avoid jargon”, “eliminate jargon”. 

As a leader, though, should you be discouraging all jargon talk?

What do I mean by “jargon”? For me, it’s words or expressions typically used by a certain profession or organizational environment that may be difficult to understand for those outside of that environment.

Whether to discourage it or not depends on the situation. When I try to make that decision, I consider a few things:

Be Clear on Why You’re Using Jargon

There are some valid reasons as to why we use it. It can bring a team closer by having this shared language. Depending on the circumstances, it might also make them feel almost like they are part of a special club (and sometimes that is actually the case) where they all use this common terminology that few people really know how to use or even understand at all. 

It might simply be a more efficient way of speaking between team members because that’s in fact the right term. And among peers, using this jargon keeps the conversation flowing about the topic. 

Make Sure the Jargon Is Clearly Defined

There are times when, even though the term is not known by all present, the context is clear enough to allow everyone to follow the conversation… Follow-ish. It may not be necessary for all to understand the nuances and details. Particularly if it’s just casual conversation. There is a risk of alienation but for me as long as it’s done in a way that is more about “hey I’m really excited to talk to about this” and not with the specific intent of excluding then I don’t have a problem with it.

One way to help educate about the terms could be to have a basic “team dictionary” of the most often used terms for newer team members who may be afraid of asking what something means because they don’t want to appear like they don’t know the field and maybe are concerned this might reveal a weakness and maybe it was a mistake to hire them.

Having this easily accessible to everyone could help. 

Confirm Jargon Doesn’t Actually Mask a True Lack of Understanding

Maybe someone isn’t as proficient as they claim to be but are amazing at tossing around jargon in an attempt to fool others into believing they know more than they actually do. Until you build that trust that these individuals actually do know what they’re talking about when using the jargon, keep that in mind.

In the same vein, be aware when speaking with clients that they may not understand that terminology and make that effort to use longer, clearer, and more widely understood explanations.

Try to resist the temptation to “wow” your clients with how much jargon you know. For myself, when I started working closely with a tax and advisory services expert, I had a lot of complex questions and needed very specific guidance. We were paying them to do the work, so this expert could have easily chosen to inundate me with jargon. But they knew I wanted to understand and made sure to answer my questions as clearly as possible using a bit more wording – likely using almost the definition of the jargon word. But what that did is two things:

  1. I walked away being able to make better decisions because I understood what we were talking more in depth and
  2. that person gained my trust.

Because they were able to explain the concepts clearly showed me that they really were an expert. They weren’t just good at tossing around jargon.

Not Everybody Knows

Encourage team members to ask questions. As a leader, I model that frequently to remind others that we all bring something to the table and just because one person doesn’t know all the terminology of all the aspects of the organization doesn’t mean they are less competent team members. If team members see that it’s ok to not know all they will feel better asking for clarification. Demonstrate that it’s not a big deal. Other than in very specific cases, it is usually better for an organization to have a diversity of knowledge and skillsets.

In the end, I rarely think it’s necessary to ban all jargon internally. But be aware of why you’re using it, the risks associated, and, when dealing with individuals external to your organization or newer team members, err on the side of avoiding jargon.


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