A passive-aggressive shareholder letter from GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt

Image: GE 2016 Annual Report

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, just published his company’s annual report and shareholder letter. It starts off with a veiled protest about the state of the world and the challenges it has created for GE’s leadership. The lede demonstrates clearly how people who want to accuse without naming names (Trump! Trump!) use passive constructions to generate doubt.

A close read of Immelt’s passive-aggressive lede

GE’s shareholder letter is 26 pages long with graphics and subsections. The full report is 264 pages and 28,000 words, half the length of my last book. Online, it’s a fully interactive experience including sub-pages that reconfigure themselves through responsive design. Like any good piece of content that long, it puts the most important stuff up front. So let’s take a look at the lede. I’ve highlighted passive voice and weasel words:

Leading in a Digital Industrial Era

Your company delivered in a year of sluggish growth and geopolitical surprise. There is deep skepticism toward the ideas that powered economic expansion for a generation, with concepts like innovation, productivity, and globalization being challenged and protectionism on the rise. We’re in an era when some very basic assumptions about the global economy are being tested – an era when trust in big institutions is so low that the most valued “strategy” is simply change in any form. For an American company, our country is diverging from the rest of the world. We will be less of a leader in trade. Meanwhile, we are stripping away years of bad regulatory and economic practices to promote competitiveness.

This reads like a movie script in which deep rumbles from the overcast skies foreshadow a brewing storm. We start with “a year of sluggish growth and geopolitical surprise.” “Surprise” is code for “Brexit and Trump happened and we didn’t expect it.”

Look at what comes next. While not all of these statements are grammatically passive, they all lack specific actors and subjects. Try adding “by zombies” and you’ll get really nervous.

  • There is deep skepticism towards the ideas that powered economic expansion for a generation, . . . ” Who is skeptical? Where is the evidence?
  • “. . . concepts like innovation, productivity, and globalization [are] being challenged and protectionism [is] on the rise.” This is passive. Who is challenging the concepts of innovation and productivity? We know who is challenging globalization, but Immelt will not mention any names.
  • [V]ery basic assumptions about the the global economy are being tested.” Who is testing them? Which assumptions?
  • [T]rust in big institutions is so low that the most valued ‘strategy’ is simply change in any form.” This is a veiled reference to Brexit and Trump upsetting the global business framework. No competent business manager anywhere thinks “change” by itself is a strategy, but Immelt worries that global political leaders and masses think that way.
  • “[O]ur country is diverging from the rest of the world.” How? We don’t know, because of the vagueness of this passage. If “the rest of the world” includes Putin, Erdogan, Assad, Le Pen, and May, perhaps our country is actually converging with the rest of the world.
  • “We will be less of a leader in trade.” Bald statement, no justification. Actually, if Trump has his way, we will be a leader in exports and a laggard in imports.
  • “[W]e are stripping away years of bad regulatory and economic practices to promote competitiveness.” This is intended as a sop to the part of Trump’s agenda that Immelt likes — reduced regulation. But notice how when the government does what Immelt wants, it’s “we,” and when it doesn’t, it’s passive constructions that hold no one responsible.

A honest version of this passage would damn Trump

If you rewrite this section to restore the actors to the passive sentences, it’s pretty shocking. Here’s how it would read:

The World Has Gone To Shit

GE did pretty well even though the world turned to shit this year. We believe in innovation, productivity, and success in an interconnected global economy. But Donald Trump and the Brexit-driven leaders of the UK don’t — they’re raising protectionist barriers. Voters resent the success of companies like GE and are blindly tearing down institutions like free trade and globalism that we’re built on. We feel betrayed: our own country is no longer hospitable to global success we are built on. Thanks for getting rid of troublesome regulations, President Trump, but you’ve scared the crap out of us.

The rest of the letter is more substantive

Immelt does not continue in this ominous vein. Like most shareholder letters, he explains the financials, reveals how GE is grappling with the global shifts, and flogs GE’s best ideas like a “store” for industrial services. But Immelt continues to make his point about globalization with passages like this:

The U.S. doesn’t compete for global markets on the same basis as China and Germany. Over the past generation, the U.S. has done very little to help our manufacturers or workers. Our tax policy favors imports, not exports. Our infrastructure is subpar. Our regulations have exploded. We remain the only major economy in the world without a functioning export bank. In almost every category, the U.S. stands apart with antiquated policies while our global competitors have embraced change. Meanwhile, other countries are on the move, doing trade deals and promoting growth. They are selling “government-to-government” to grow their competitive advantage. The world does not stand still. We are hopeful that the new administration will “level the playing field” for U.S. companies.

This is both more substantive and more honest, in that it calls out the administration and suggests what it should do. But he still won’t say “Trump.” None of the 28,000 words in this document are “Trump,” who has become, for GE, “He who must not be named.”

Why not be honest

Immelt had two choices: Accuse political leaders including Trump of causing the problems GE faces, or just describe how GE is faring in the current environment without assigning blame. He chose a third way: accusing Trump without naming him. Since the target of his accusations is clear, this will manage the neat trick of pissing off the Trump administration without GE taking any responsibility.

The rest of the letter is clear, analytical, and rewarding. So why start with a passive-aggressive whine?

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