The scourge of managerial blah
Source: Nick Shepherd
There is a type of language that has become ubiquitous in academia in recent years. I call it managerial blah. You will recognise managerial blah if you’ve ever had to read it – or, God help you, had to write it. It is the official argot of the modern university, the way its actions are presented and explained.
So how do you write managerial blah? First of all, you will need lots of abstract nouns. It helps if these can be used to signal things that we are all meant to approve of in some open-ended, ill-defined way, such as leadership, excellence and quality. Mostly, though, you can rely on nouns that just refer to general categories into which other things fit: framework, model, strategy, mechanism and portfolio.
This kind of noun-speak bears the traces of that traditional faith in word magic, the belief that chanting words like a spell could bring something into being, such as a cattle plague for one’s enemy or a good harvest for oneself. We flatter ourselves that, as enlightened moderns, we have left such primitive notions behind. But word magic survives today in curses, oaths – and nouns.
When you use a noun, you are claiming that the thing it refers to is real and durable enough to be named. The American writer and educator John Erskine wrote that a noun is “only a grappling iron to hitch your mind to the reader’s”. This grappling iron is especially useful when you are dealing with abstract notions that can’t be grasped by the senses. In managerial blah, nouns such as esteem, value and gain become taken-for-granted things that, to the initiated, speak for themselves. The effect is amplified when you put two nouns together, such as performance indicator or service outcome. And even better if you can group them into threes: upskilling development opportunity, online delivery platform, workload resource allocation. Managerial blah loves these three-noun clusters because they ratchet up the nouniness, and thus the feeling that we are discussing something definite and unarguable. Knowledge exchange partnership is not just a noun, but three nouns – so it must be a thing. It lives!
These abstract nouns can then be paired up with intensifying adjectives such as dynamic, strategic, impactful, innovative and user-focused. In managerial blah, these intensifiers have gone through a process that linguists call semantic bleaching. This means that their intensity has declined through overuse, until they are left as little more than placeholders in a sentence. They are so often paired with the same nouns that they form the tired couplings known as collocations. A collocation occurs when two or more words are habitually juxtaposed. So learning is always student-centred, procedures are always robust, competencies are always core and stakeholders are always key (there being no such thing, in managerial blah, as a minor stakeholder). Adverbs and participles can be collated into equally trite pairings. In managerial blah we are never just engaged but actively engaged, never just positioned but proactively positioned, never just committed but strongly committed.
OK, now you have to join up these stock-brick words and phrases into a clause. You will need at least one verb, but make sure it is a weak, connective one, such as facilitate, embed, enhance, refocus, reprioritise or rebalance. Try not to use more energetic verbs which would force you to attach agency to the subject of your sentence. That might involve your inadvertently constructing an argument that could be challenged, and you don’t want that.
You will find that you can cut down on verbs, anyway, by using lots of prepositions. Prepositions are small, harmless-looking words with many different meanings and functions. For the aspiring author of managerial blah they are helpfully ambiguous, allowing you to hint at connections between things without having to argue them through. You can use prepositions to staple-gun nouns together without worrying too much about verbal action. Managerial blah uses prepositions in weird, overemphasised ways, as if these little words are carrying more weight than they should. We will look at providing…This will help around our impact agenda…The executive deans will be leading on this.
If you’ve followed my instructions so far, you will have something resembling a complete clause in managerial blah. Now all you need to do is link it up with other clauses into sentences and paragraphs in a way that has no forward momentum at all. For instance, you can yoke interchangeable clauses together into one long sentence using just colons and semicolons. These form a sort of punctuational sticking plaster when the verbs are not strong enough to carry the reader through the sentence and into the next one. You can also group your sentences into lots of numbered sections and sub-sections. Numbering creates the illusion of structure and relieves you of the task of connecting one paragraph to the next with a developing argument. This list-like writing is lifeless – listless, in fact – because, unlike life, it has no propulsive energy. It arranges reality consecutively but randomly.
The torpidity of managerial blah sits awkwardly with its rhetoric, which sets so much store by perpetual movement. The prevailing tone is one of monodirectional certainty, with constant reference to continuous enhancement, direction of travel and, of course, going forward (or its now more common and vigorous variants, moving forward and driving forward). This all brings to mind the French theorist Henri Lefebvre’s definition of modernisation as “the movement which justifies its own existence merely by moving”.
In managerial blah, the phrase going forward is more than just a verbal tic. It encapsulates a particular way of looking at the world. Like the free market, the managerialist university believes in permanent revolution and endless growth. So it produces an infinite series of self-replenishing demands, urging everyone up a mountain whose summit will never be reached. University mission statements beseech us all to keep improving, to ceaselessly pursue quality, value or excellence. And how could the quest for such elusive nouns ever end?
But here’s the odd thing. Even as managerial blah exhorts us to move endlessly onwards, it is taking us on a journey that already knows its own end. In its linguistic universe, nothing truly new or surprising ever occurs. Points must be actioned, milestones must be met, deliverables must be delivered and inputs must have outputs. All eyes are on the satisficing completion of an algorithmic process, in a way that refuses to concede the possibility not only of failure but also of anything unforeseeable, unanticipated or serendipitous.
Managerial blah is an anonymous, depopulated language. It bears no trace of any inconveniently real human beings whose imperfections might mess up the system. It deals in processes and procedures, not people. It conjures up a metric-driven, quasi-rationalistic, artificially sealed-off world in which anything can be claimed and nothing can be seen or felt. No one ever says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. The juggernaut just runs on, inevitably and under its own steam, although there may be issues and challenges along the way (never problems or failures, which might be pinned on people).
Good writing always has some give in it. It is open to dispute by a reality that the writer does not own and the reader might see differently. Managerial blah, by contrast, runs along a closed circuit that permits no response. Without any sense of voice or audience, it feels tone-locked, written by no one in particular to be read by no one in particular. It is anti-language, a weary run-through of the verbal motions.
Why does managerial blah get written? In part it is down to a banal and timeless truth: most people have no great facility with words. Writing with subtlety and precision is hard, so instead we default to off-the-shelf words and boilerplate phrases. Tying nouns together with weak verbal and prepositional knots is the simplest and quickest way to rustle up a sentence and achieve a superficial fluency. If good writing is hard to write and easy to read, then managerial blah is the reverse: a labour to read, a breeze to write.
Perhaps some of those who write managerial blah genuinely believe that, merely by gluing nouns together, they have communicated meaningfully with their readers. But surely, in a university, ignorance is no defence. Managerial blah is a crime against words by intelligent, well-educated and well-remunerated people who should know better. Writing well is hard, but not that hard. If you keep on producing this ugly and alienating language when so many people have told you how ugly and alienating it is, then your intellectual laziness is not an accident.
Writing with proper care and attention offers you no hiding place. The basic somebody-did-something structure of the plain English sentence allows your reader to weigh up how convincing you sound. When you use specific nouns and strong verbs to describe your actions, you have to think through the purposes and consequences of those actions. Managerial blah evades this obligation. It can thus make the cruellest and maddest realities seem sane and incontrovertible.
The sector is currently going through a traumatic cycle of redundancies, in response to the brutally competitive market created by the raising of tuition fees, the removal of student number controls and government antipathy to “low-value” arts and humanities courses. The language used to announce and explain these redundancies has been a masterclass in managerial blah: stale, vapid, self-validating and, of course, chock-full of nouns. Staff who receive letters informing them of their imminent dismissal are lectured about strategic priorities, changes to the staffing establishment, redundancy ordinances and university redeployment registers. And because lip service must now always be paid to mental health, they are then directed to employee assistance programmes and staff well-being portals. Students who are worried that their lecturers have all been sacked are assured that a student protection plan is in place. This nouny language is not even trying to illuminate. Its only purpose is to immunise itself against scrutiny and challenge.
Job cuts and other distressing developments are justified with the scariest two nouns in the lexicon of managerial blah: change management. Change is happening anyway, this omnipresent phrase suggests, and in a direction that has already been decided. All the rest of you can do is adapt or get off the bus. Change management is the shibboleth of a financialised capitalism that sees human capital as a faceless element in an inexorable process and a fixed cost to be reduced.
The emotional costs of redundancy are immense. People who have given everything to adapt their teaching and support their students in a pandemic have now had their livelihoods taken away and, in many cases, their careers effectively ended. Naturally they feel great anxiety, anger and pain. Their colleagues who remain in post are left with survivor guilt and fear of the worse that may be to come. And all this human turmoil is hidden inside that insipid, unassailable phrase, change management.
Those of us in the humanities – the subjects most at threat from redundancies – are at least alert to how language shapes reality as well as reflecting it. Words are never simply a neutral, transparent container for meaning. They can clarify and elucidate or they can muddy and obscure. They can wake the mind up or anaesthetise it. They can polish reality so it gleams or hide it behind a rusty carapace of cliché, cant and sloganeering. Words are not just how we communicate; they are how we think. Managerial blah liberates the writer from the need to do either. It is a kind of literary lockjaw that stops you saying or thinking anything original or edifying.
There is a long tradition of making fun of management speak, but managerial blah is too dull even to poke fun at. It offers no purchase or ingress for the satirist or ironist. It just sleepwalks from one big noun to the next, sucking us into its vortex and boring us into submission. All the imaginative promise of words has been pulped into a lumpy noun gravy, neither liquid enough to flow nor solid enough to be forked. This noun gravy is tasteless but, should you swallow enough of it, noxious.
Words matter. They transform how we think and feel about each other and about our lives. We will never be able to see the world in more creative and fruitful ways if we are trapped inside a univocal vocabulary. Imagine how refreshing it would be to read an official university document that treated its readers like human beings, by trying to persuade them with defensible arguments, fine distinctions and honest doubts. We would live richer, more productive and more authentic working lives in academia if we cared more about words – which is why, now that I have told you how to write managerial blah, I hope you will ignore my advice.
Joe Moran is professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University.