Thinking outside the box – and other annoying business clichés

Anyone who has worked anywhere knows every organization has its own jargon that sounds like a foreign language to a new employee. In addition, there are common business expressions that have become a little too common.

Many of these terms are difficult to define or don’t mean anything at all. Unfortunately, I have used some of these terms myself in teaching my business classes at Tiffin University.

The worst offender for me is telling people to “think outside the box.” This is typically used when asking someone to think creatively or in a way that hasn’t been done before. The problem is the expression is so overused that saying it is the least creative way of asking some to be creative. And to what box are they referring? Why is a box the metaphor for the creative part of our brains?

When using the expression “to be honest,” does it suggest the person saying this was not being honest up to this point? Maybe the person saying this read last month’s version of this column that dealt with lying in business and decided to come clean.

I am guilty of using the term “synergy” in class. The term means the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that hopefully a group can accomplish more together than the same group of individuals can on their own. It is often used to describe a merger of two businesses, especially if the merger fails, as in the new company could not accomplish the “synergies” it hoped for … no kidding?

Another expression I have used in class is “paradigm shift.” This is just a fancy term for change, but sounds much more sophisticated when describing what an organization is planning to do to avoid bankruptcy or has some other major flaw it needs to alter.

One of the more meaningless (and popular) expressions is, “It is what it is.” This is used outside of business as well. Not sure what question is being answered here.

Sometimes, people are told not to “drink the Kool-Aid.” This is a reference to the 1978 Jamestown, Guyana, incident when followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking a powdered drink mixed with cyanide. In business, it means to be wary of peer pressure associated with what appear to be risky ideas … hopefully, not as risky as the Jamestown Kool-Aid.

Agriculture metaphors are popular, such as when organizations “break down the silos.” This means different departments should work together. Was there really a need for managers to be told that? “Low-hanging fruit” suggests the person or organization should accomplish the easy task first, like selling more to current customers. Not sure how the current customers like being compared to fruit.

Occasionally, employees need to “touch base” with bosses, colleagues or customers. Sometimes, I let this cliché slip out while teaching outside the U.S., where I get very confused looks from students who know nothing about American baseball. Telling them a company “hit a home run” does not work well there, either.

Many popular business phrases are lost in translation when communicating with different generations of workers and diverse work populations, according to Kristina Collins, vice provost for academic excellence, distinctiveness and effectiveness at Tiffin University. “Employees from different countries may try to take a phrase literally and not understand the intended meaning.”

This is just a small sample of overused terms. I am sure you know of some used in your organization. If you like, send me an email ( with one or more clichés you are tired of hearing. If I collect enough of these, I will make them the subject of a future column.

Perry Haan is professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Tiffin University. He can be reached at (419) 618-2867.