July 24, 2014

Beware of career self-sabotage. It lurks in how we write office emails and memos. This has nothing to do with being a good writer. The problem is decoding office politics — most of us were never trained to deal with it. But not to worry. I’ve gathered some great advice that will help.

Workplace communication is such a beast. It’s hard to be heard and sometimes, even harder to listen. Seemingly innocent phrases morph into word bombs. We give off the stink of mixed signals.

Figuring things out is especially challenging in the 21st century. We are in a global economy. Today’s workforce reflects an unprecedented degree of diversity, which I think is truly beautiful. On the downside, though, is the lack of context. We have no experience in working together, which sets the stage for misunderstanding and conflict.

I’ve been researching this issue to prep for a new course I’m teaching at The New School. It’s a workshop called Writing in the Workplace. Forget about the students, haha! I’m learning so much. There’s career-changing information here that I could’ve used on my way up. Would’ve saved me from considerable frustration. Still, I’m excited. It’s never too late to be a better entrepreneur and business woman.

Let’s start by dealing with diversity

To regroup, we must see that dealing with authority pushes each of our buttons in very specific ways. Some of our reactions are unique to us as individuals. But experts who study the full range of our responses see patterns based on ethnicity, race and culture. Gender is also a huge factor. Generational differences matter too.

Of course, there’s one more essential ingredient spicing up the pot. We have to throw in the fact that most of corporate America is steeped in the authority of an old guard business model — a system designed for, and run by straight, middle-class, middle-aged white men.

Are we in a big mess? Not necessarily, according to Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences. The authors, management consultants Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee, published their user-friendly book in early 2014. They apply an earnest, conversational tone to their informative overview of who we are and what we need to know.

Understanding where we come from is critical. My enlightenment began with seeing that age matters. Right now, we are a workforce of four very distinct age categories. Some clashes can turn into alliances — once we appreciate the ways in which younger and older folks are wired.

  • Traditionalists (born before 1946): Civic-minded survivors of the Great Depression. Values hard work, sacrifice, respect for authority.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): A group with a very strong work ethic. Values individualism, idealism, optimism.
  • Generation X (born 1965-1976): Adaptable free agents who possess a healthy dose of skepticism. Values independence, work-life balance.
  • Generation Y, (born 1977-1994): Millennials crave strong team culture. Values technology, social media, personal time, civic duty, competence.

It’s usually not wise to say exactly what you think. “Mitigation” is a buzz word in this and many other how-to business books. To mitigate means that instead of cursing someone out or ordering them around, you make nice. You want them to hear your request. You want them to give you what you want.

  • Instead of being direct with a demand (“Do this by Friday”), the mitigated version would be: “Can you do this by Friday?”
  • Conditional words are useful: “would,” “could,” “maybe,” “sometimes” and “possibly.” An annoying direct command (“Give me the report by close of business”) goes down better with butter: “If possible, I’d love to get the figures in time to look them over tonight.”

On the other hand, being indirect should NOT be the default setting. Indirectness can also create more problems. Sometimes, direct is best.

To illustrate, the authors’ many insightful examples include the following mitigated statement, which has been softened with the qualifier “if”: “If you have time this week, let’s go over your process on the last assignment.”

But this approach doesn’t clue the listener in on the performance stakes. Instead, be direct: “We didn’t meet our objectives last week. Please get on my schedule tomorrow morning and we’ll do a postmortem on your last assignment.”

Don’t let our family cultures hold us back. This book’s powerful focus on diversity draws on the authors’ own experiences. Audrey grew up in a Chinese Confucian immigrant family that emphasized obedience. Jane came to the U.S. as a young Korean immigrant. She was taught to revere teachers and raise her hand before speaking. Believe me, I relate!

From here, the authors serve up a rich and colorful parade of bosses, workers and colleagues. The book works hard to be sensitive, so that the examples don’t read like a bunch of stereotypes. For the most part, they are very successful.

The first example to surprise me was about a woman of Mexican heritage who never chimed in during staff meetings. She just sat there, which was hurting management’s perception of her.

Turns out her parents taught her that good Mexican girls show respect by keeping quiet in the presence of power. This spin on Latino culture was news to me. It got me out of my own Asian-female head and into someone else’s culture, which is the whole point of diversity.

Anyways, once the staffer understood her strategic need to flex towards new work tools, she started talking. Guess what — her career rebounded.

Gender cross-talk is an X factor

The conflicts between men and women are systematically dissected in Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. The subtitle for this 1994 classic is “How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit and What Gets Done at Work.”

The observations in this decade-old book are still relevant because it describes the thinking that rules plenty of straight, middle-aged people. The author, Deborah Tannen, is a linguist. As an expert in languages, she offers a very useful framework for connecting the dots between words and behavior.

Tannen says that genuine business partnership between the sexes begins by decoding male and female conversational rituals. The rituals revolve around one-upmanship in pursuit of the top dog role. The goal of these rituals is to avoid the perception — or reality — of being one-down.

Men and women talk differently. Straight male conversational rituals can seem obnoxious or sound like bragging because they involve what Tannen calls “opposition.” These are tactics such as joking and teasing with put-downs that keep the talker on top and one-up.

Women generally find this sort of interaction hostile or critical. By comparison, women reach for conversational rituals that create an appearance of equality. They are also concerned with the listener’s reaction.

But to men, a female colleague’s softer approach can seem less confident because she appears to be downplaying her authority. No wonder women often don’t get the credit they deserve.

By the way, when we discussed this point in class, my students felt that in today’s world, opposition and other rituals aren’t strictly male vs. female anymore. Gay men and straight men from various nationalities and social classes might not be as engaged in oppositional rituals. There are also women, depending on how they were raised, who are quite comfortable with conventional, American male culture.

So let’s proceed, keeping in mind the dangers of generalizing. Having said that, my students still found the next ritual to be very, very on point.

“Sorry” can be a dirty word. How people do or don’t apologize is another problematic ritual. Men tend to view apologizing as an admission of fault, which puts them in a one-down position — which is why they rarely say sorry, according to Tannen.

Women, however, say “sorry” a lot. But, they rarely mean it as an apology. This is where confusion sets in. For women, “sorry” is often used to show caring and understanding.

For example: “I’m so sorry that Tony died.” A woman who says this is not suggesting that she killed Tony. All she’s doing is expressing sympathy.

As in other rituals, when both parties get what’s going on, they’re in good shape. But if you’re someone who says “sorry” a lot and the listener doesn’t understand the ritual, you could come across as rather incompetent, a person who is always making mistakes and apologizing.

When there is a real mistake and someone apologizes, the two parties are engaging in what is usually a two-step ritual. The second move requires the person who receives the apology to uplift the apologizer from his or her one-down position.

So if I say, “I’m so sorry I missed your call,” you will respond with more than simply, “That’s okay,” which doesn’t accomplish anything. A better answer: “Well, I should have remembered that you were up a big deadline.” In this way, you are sharing in the blame, which puts us back on equal footing.

But even more important, Tannen says that to be effective in the workplace, there’s really no benefit in admitting fault unless you absolutely must do so.

Thanks for nothing. Tannen has lots of examples of rituals at cross purposes. Another word women use more than men is “thanks.” In fact, the women who say “sorry” also lean heavily on “thanks.”

The problem with “thanks” is that the person I’m writing to usually hasn’t done anything for me. But my thanks creates a subconscious pressure for the recipient to respond in kind. If they don’t, then I have put myself one-down.

There are many gender rituals in the workplace. Tannen says the range of rituals include women trying to help each other save face, asking questions when you’re not expecting real answers and being indirect.

She also has a whole section on ritualized fighting. Men like to use their ritual opposition to challenge ideas as a form of discussion. For women, the ritual usually feels like a personal attack. Where the men see sport, women might see an argument or criticism that’s trying to take them one-down — or out.

Other rituals involve complaining about the workplace to build solidarity and telling jokes as a form of bonding. (Not surprisingly, the genders have different ideas of what’s funny.) Women offer more compliments than men, but they make them to women, not to the men.

Word alert: Women are prone to using praise as a variation on “sorry” and “thanks” — forms of conversations.

Tannen gives an insightful example of a women boss who is not happy with an assignment turned in by her male subordinate. She wants him to fix it. She offers a few positive words and then suggests changes.

Then, when he turns in a re-do with only the most minor tweaks, she explodes — and he feels betrayed.

Here’s what happened: Her initial response began with words of praise. And that’s all he heard.

If this isn’t giving you a headache yet, remember, we also have cultural expectations for men and women. Yes, we are back to diversity issues.

Depending on the country and cultural setting a woman who talks exactly like a man will be an outcast. She will be shunned as pushy and abrasive because she’s not acting like a “proper” woman.

Hmmm, this is all starting to feel very familiar to me…

Keep your writing concise and clear

Everything we’re covering is about learning a new behavioral language. The process is like watching a foreign movie and finally being able to read the subtitles. Aaah, now we get it. And now, we’re ready to get down to the business of actually writing.

For some extra tutoring, one of the most helpful books around is the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, published in 2012 by the Harvard Business Review.

This slim, 200-page paperback is by Bryan A. Garner, who explains that writing in the workplace must be concise, focused and easy to read.

Remember, people are busy. No one has time. He offers many examples of wordy blah-blah, and shows how to effectively overhaul the blundering material.

Good business writing follows the guidelines for all good writing. To keep frustration at a minimum, always start by figuring out your three main points. Then, write quickly and in full sentences. Just get the words out of you without overthinking. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t wait for inspiration.

Just. Do. It.

From here, it’s much easier to rewrite, tweak and even overhaul.

Be prepared to draft and redraft. The goal is to distill whatever we’re writing into a missile that gets us what we want — even if it’s “just” an email. “Show don’t tell” is the basic rule. So instead of saying someone is “an idiot,” you must itemize what the person did wrong. Maybe he or she blew a deadline, stole from the company or missed a key meeting.

Avoid bizspeak. Cliches just make us sound insecure and unimaginative. The book features a “blacklist” of no-no’s. The banned words and phrases include: as per, client-centered, level the playing field, let’s do lunch, parameters, bring our “A” game…the list goes on for three pages!

There’s more in this book — from grammar tips and a stern warning to NEVER write in anger, to advice on using bullet points.


Remember, these books are here to get us thinking. The final defining element is our personal style, values and goals. In the end, rules and guidelines were made to be broken. Just be sure to do it strategically.

Sooooo, have fun exploring. And good luck with your wonderful career.  :)

FYI — For full disclosure, I need to let you know that I am an affiliate. This means that if you click on any of the book links in this post and end up buying anything on the Amazon site, I get a commission that will make me very rich.  ;)