In news that will no doubt spook any manager who has carried out an important briefing in the past few days, 88% of American office workers have admitted that they’ve pretended, on at least one occasion, to understand workplace jargon without having the faintest idea what it means.

Even so, two-thirds say that that they still use jargon words or phrases multiple times each week – hinting that they may well be regurgitating a lot of the verbiage that they don’t understand.

The findings have emerged from a survey report by American Express OPEN, which pointed out that phrases such as, “It ladders up to our overarching framework and optimises the impactfulness of our deliverables” do very little to advance the cause of understanding between colleagues.

All of this chimes with findings that the Institute of Leadership and Management published in 2013, which showed that almost a quarter of UK workers considered jargon a pointless irritation. Our research ranked the Top Three most-hated workplace verbal tics as ‘thinking outside the box’ (57%), ‘going forward’ (55%) and ‘let’s touch base’ (39%).

Workplace expert, author and American Express OPEN research partner Lynn Taylor advises office workers to “be real” in their interactions.

“Everyone can be more productive and engender more trust by avoiding rampant business jargon,” she says. “Office ‘babblespeak’ just adds unnecessary distance between co-workers. Consider if we all spoke like that at a party! Try being more human, conversational and approachable at work, which will make everyone happier and likely lead to better results.”

But can jargon ever be a useful aid – particularly when addressing technical specifics? And if so, how can it be reined in so that it doesn’t get infuriatingly out of control?

“Jargon wouldn’t be so widespread if it didn’t suit particular purposes,” says Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute. “It’s a shorthand for saying ‘We understand what we’re talking about; we’re part of the same group.’ When you’re among a team of professionals and everyone understands the use of abbreviations and specific terms, there’s something quite social and comforting about it – so it certainly has benefits. To say we shouldn’t use it is too extreme.

“However, if it’s being used to exclude others – or to aspire to belong to a group by using the jargon, but not really understanding what it’s about – then that’s when it starts to become unproductive and unhelpful.”

Cooper adds: “as with many of the more egregious aspects of workplace culture, the most effective challenge is often a humourous one. If you have a culture in which people can be questioned on their use of jargon – and particularly on what it really means – not only can its ridiculousness be exposed, but the discussion can also inject some levity into a situation.

“This type of ‘management-speak’ actually serves many purposes – but the important point is to not take it, or ourselves, too seriously! Focus on its use as a shorthand, of being able to communicate with like-minded professionals, but never as a tool for exclusion or some kind of power play. And always be prepared to offer a ‘layman’s terms’ translation for those who are still finding their feet.”

 For thoughts on how to create an effective communication framework for your organisation, check out this learning item from the Institute