The Smart-Talk Trap

The Smart-Talk Trap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Originally published in the May–June 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review


We found that a particular kind of talk is an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: “smart talk.” The elements of smart talk include sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary. But smart talk tends to have other, less benign components: first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in its tracks.

Why Talk Prevails

Managers let talk substitute for action because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Many executives in contemporary organizations have been to business school, and even those who don’t have M.B.A. degrees often attend executive education programs taught by business school faculty. What do they learn in those programs? That the ability to talk—and particularly to talk smart—pays.

On Complexity

Rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.

Organizations Who Shut the Smart-Talk Trap

1. They have leaders who know and do the work.

Companies that use talk productively—to guide and spur action—have leaders who make it a priority to learn and do the work.

2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts.

Companies that avoid the knowing-doing gap are often masters of the mundane. Executives devote their efforts to a few straightforward priorities that have clear implications for action. These organizations realize the value of direct language and understandable concepts. They consider “common sense” a compliment rather than an insult.

3. They frame questions by asking “how,” not just “why.”

4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop.

5. They believe that experience is the best teacher.

Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.


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