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The Origins of Office Speak - The Atlantic

The Origins of Office Speak The Atlantic

Schein, now 86, is largely credited with coining the term organizational culture (the linguistic cousin of corporate culture). “In the 1960s, there was an emphasis on humanistic psychology, involving the worker, because then they would work better,” he told me. “We were interested in how groups and leadership could be made more effective. So we started something called the human relations lab.”

A pair of hypotheses rose out of these labs. As McGregor explained in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, managers could think of their employees in one of two ways: as lazy work-haters who need to be closely supervised (Theory X), or as ambitious self-motivators who thrive in an atmosphere of trust (Theory Y). “This introduced the idea that effective managers believe in their people and trust them and don’t feel that they have to monitor them all the time,” Schein said.

Esalen Institute founders Michael Murphy and Dick Price (

Although the researchers didn’t necessarily favor one theory over the other, Theory Y fit perfectly with the zeitgeist of the 60s. It drew on Abraham Maslow’s increasingly popular theory of the hierarchy of needs, which positioned “self-actualization” as the highest goal of human life. Inspired by Maslow, Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded the Esalen Institute in 1962 to nurture the burgeoning Human Potential Movement, and Look magazine’s George Leonard helped bring it into the mainstream. Theory Y extended this worldview into the realm of work: Jobs, much like meditation and mind-enhancing drugs, were seen as a way to discover untapped inner power and find personal fulfillment. Over the years, the idea has stuck: In 2001, The Human Side of Enterprise was voted the fourth most influential management book in the 20th century by the Academy of Management.


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In the decades that followed, academics continued to come up with memorable buzzwords. British psychologist Raymond Cattell repurposed the word synergy, which was originally a Protestant term for cooperation between the human will and divine grace. The UC Berkeley philosopher Thomas Kuhn popularized the term paradigm shift in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And, much later, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the term disruptwhich has become a favorite in today’s climate of start-up worship. But more importantly, academics have had a big effect on how workers work, all thanks to one group of people: consultants.


In 1981, Drucker started working with one of his biggest clients: General Electric. The company had just been taken over by Jack Welch, who was looking to overhaul its management in the midst of a recession. Over the next decade, Welch systematically redesigned the culture of the organization, hitting a peak in 1989 with his Work-Out program, which was designed to help managers and employees solve problems faster. In the language of Work-Out, low-hanging fruit were problems that were easily identified and solved. Other fantastic jargon from the program included rattlers, or obvious problems (so-named because they “make a lot of noise”) and pythons, or challenging problems that come from bloated bureaucracy. A little ironically, Welch wrote that Work-Out would create “a company where jargon and double-talk are ridiculed and candor is demanded.”

I would be so happy if I never heard some of these words again.

But unfortunately they're baked into the vocabulary of business.

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