Legacy issues

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Maybe you heard it too. When RBS’s previous quarter results showed a £2 billion loss, the bank’s Chief Executive put it down to ‘legacy issues’. The BBC described these legacy issues as: “mis-selling payment protection insurance (PPI) to customers and litigation related to a £12bn rights issue in 2008 during the financial crisis.” (The litigation was brought by shareholders who said they were misled into supporting the bank’s rights issue in 2008 and lost money as a result.)

Clearly, by ‘legacy issues’, RBS meant ‘mistakes we made in the past’.

I thought it was an interesting choice of words.

By saying ‘legacy issues’, RBS glosses over a lot of things it would rather people didn’t remember. Is it better to say that than to say something along the lines of ‘the things we got wrong in the past’?

If it were my business, I’d take much more responsibility and say ‘mistakes I made in the past’, but then I’m a one-person business not an enormous corporation with shareholders to appease, so it’s a different case.

Clearly, RBS decided that to remind people of past misdemeanours was not a good move for a bank or sector trying to rebuild its reputation.

Consider this too.

How often have you heard a hapless spokesperson on the radio saying to the interviewer: “We need to learn the lessons from this,” and yelled: “Stop saying that! Say ‘We need to learn from this’!” I know I have.

But to my mind, ‘learn the lessons from’ somehow puts distance between the disaster and the organisation under whose watch it happened. It seems to take less responsibility and also give some ‘wriggle room’.

After all, ‘learning a lesson’ is very different to doing (or not doing) something in the future. I’ve learned the lesson about leaving enough time to get to meetings so I don’t arrive with only seconds to spare. Doesn’t stop me leaving the house at the last minute more often than I should.

When you think about management speak like this, I think there are two responses. The first is an understanding that the organisation in question has to use it to deflect criticism. The other is sadness that we live in a world where that has to be the case. Whichever view you take, I think it’s an interesting insight into the power of words and a reminder of the subtleties of language.

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