In my first job that did not involve beer or sliced ham, I worked in the corporate affairs department of a pharmaceutical company.
One day some consultants came to pitch for the account to design our social responsibility report. “You are on a journey,” one of them told us, “and you have been for some time.”
At the time I was hugely impressed. His words were uncannily accurate. Our company was located 90 minutes from central London, and most people spent almost half the day commuting.
But the idea of a journey also promised profound truth. A young graduate like me could stop wondering what on earth they were doing and be sure that they were destined for somewhere. I don’t know if the journey-man won the pitch, because my personal journey involved leaving the company shortly afterwards.
However, in the intervening decade, his notion has become unbearably pervasive. In the past few weeks, we have heard that Barclays is on “a journey” of cultural change, courtesy of its chairman John McFarlane; and that the Labour party is “at first base on a journey to win back people’s trust”, according to its MP Chuka Umunna. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is “on a journey to becoming a modern, progressive burger and breakfast restaurant”, or at least its US chief Mike Andres thinks it is.
Readers might believe such language should be confined to The X Factor, where it can be accompanied by sappy, emotive music. But global sage David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who otherwise castigates self-help nonsense, disagrees. He warms to the metaphor of a journey – arguing in his book The Road to Character that it is even used by “truly humble people”.
If that’s right, then poor them. Because it is useless. The first problem is that it is never quite clear what type of journey we are on.
Is it a car journey where we have to do the driving? Or a train journey where we can mostly sit back, as long as we occasionally check that we haven’t missed our stop and arrived in Doncaster? Are we in fact on a long-haul flight where we will spend most of the time asleep, and the remainder waiting to be fed? Perhaps – like the singer Miley Cyrus – we are on “a climb”, with the sad implication that we are approaching our peak.
Either way, it is the wrong metaphor for bosses to use. Yes, work should vary and companies should adapt. But when the average employee wants to go “on a journey”, they find a different job. Every time a chief executive dusts off the metaphor, an underling remembers to update their LinkedIn profile.
Staying in the same company, even a changing one, is not really a journey at all – we know the people, the culture and which days to avoid the canteen. That is the attraction. What we want is a clear set-up within which to operate, not the vague promise that we are all heading on some kind of class outing.
Mr McFarlane and others also overlook the fact that journeys have unfortunate connotations. “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, is a phrase resonating in first class, where, coincidentally, the chief executives tend to be. Most normal people prefer actually being places.
Take Microsoft, where chief executive Satya Nadella promised staff in February last year that they were starting “a new phase of our journey together”. Since then he has announced more than 25,000 job cuts, and eviscerated the handset business. It turns out the journey Mr Nadella had in mind was Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, where only a few are unharmed.
The idea of a journey does have an obvious attraction to bosses, because it makes change seem inevitable and their particular course appear predetermined. Its sister phrase is “evolving”, which has the added benefit of implying that objectors might lack opposable thumbs. “This is the next stage of our evolution,” Nick Denton, the founder of misanthropic blog Gawker said recently, when laying out a new set of editorial standards rejected by some of his – now former – staff.
In fact, both “evolution” and “journey” are wimpish attempts to disguise the fact that decisions have been taken – and that those decisions may turn out to be right or wrong. Using them only makes sense alongside talk of extinction and U-turns.
So the next time a chief executive deploys the J-word, may I suggest the following appendix: “What do I mean by journey? This company is a family, so think of it as a family road trip, albeit one during which you may be ejected from the vehicle. There is no point asking ‘how long till we get there’ because, like your father, I have a trained ability not to hear you. But at some point I may turn off the engine, pull out the map and seek to blame whoever is sitting beside me. Then, and only then, will you know the journey is over – and that we are simply and irredeemably lost.”
By Henry Mance
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