Management by Adjectives

“Brilliant”, “Outstanding”, “Abysmal”, “Pathetic” – do these sound familiar in your workplace, especially in meetings? Welcome to the domain of superlatives and the world of management by adjectives.

As the corporate world chugs along, trying (and failing) to keep pace with the lightning speed with which social media proliferates all aspects of life, every adjective that is (and is not) in the dictionary has become a weapon in the management arsenal.

Of course, pundits have long acknowledged and recommended the positive power of a pat on the back of a deserving employee. But, surely, isn’t a response of “awesome” from a manager while acknowledging his secretary’s mere mention of his next appointment a bit of overkill? Or an exclamation of “phenomenal” upon hearing a co-worker mention that the earth is round?

While the novice manager tries to be merely sensational with her use of adjectives (in the absence of any meaningful objectives), the professional takes the act to a different level – strategy at its best. With a deft maneuvering of the topic with the right adjectives, a situation such as, “We messed up and lost the order” could be portrayed as, “It was a sensational battle that came down to the wire. The competitor was selling snake oil with smokes and mirrors and unfortunately the customer failed miserably to see the extraordinary value in our unprecedented offer”.

In the sea of departmental wars that is often referred to as a corporation, the functional head who has command over a better repertoire of adjectives usually wins or at least comes out unscathed. Take a look at the following conversation in a review meeting:

Dan (CEO): How is the new building coming along?

Bob (Head of Construction): We have had some serious setbacks. Material for the structures arrived very late and the building crew had to be reassigned many times and we are six weeks behind schedule.

Dan: Mary, what …….

Mary (Head of Purchasing): Dan and Bob, it has been a hectic time with all vendors due to the unforeseen, unseasonable weather. My Senior Procurement Manager, Liz, has spent countless number of hours relentlessly chasing up an endless number of sources and has made the supreme sacrifice of canceling her precious dental appointment. But for dedicated staff like Liz, we would be way more behind schedule. I am monitoring the situation 24/7 (24/7 is an adjective not in the dictionary).

Dan: OK, ok…. Both of you, please get this back on track.

I rest my case.


7 thoughts on “Management by Adjectives

  1. What you describe is an example of companies taking a page from the parenting playbook, i.e., compliment your child for everything to fill them with confidence. The problem is that the child/ employee never knows when they’ve really excelled.

  2. “Awesome”! “Extraordinary”! Despite your gentle sarcasm, you have certainly hit the nail on the head (so to speak…or am I falling into the same trap of a corporate club member?). While there are two sides of the coin (with some bosses just assume that his/her subordinate HAS to deliver or held to task, and the other investing in hyperbole). As Ms.Gail has correctly observed, you bring in to the office culture what you are accustomed to, at home (parent, or child). Sigh!

  3. Was at a session on positive psychology last week, and it’s good to give positive reinforcement when it’s due (or even when it’s just needed), sadly missing in many of the clients I’ve worked with. However, I agree completely that over-praising/hyperbole just muddies the waters about what is and isn’t good enough. There’s also the risk that you can’t give constructive criticism if just breathing is “phenomenal”!

      • I know right? I just didn’t want to bug you with comments on each post. I mean, those quirks make more sense to me now than when I was in that world a decade ago. Now, am still partially in one, but also more of my own boss and a partner. So yes, I could use some of those and hahaha – keep writing whenever you make time cause writing like yours keep me ‘sane’, humorously grounded, ‘sarcastically bemused’ and which other adjectives could I use? Have a great weekend and thanks for replying

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