A few weeks ago I received an email from a candidate for a job I recently filled. His grammar, in the email, wasn’t great. The job requires writing, so I asked for a writing sample. The writing sample I received was riddled with spelling and grammar errors.
When I rejected the candidate, because of his writing, some of my friends defended the candidate saying that spelling didn’t predict how successful someone would be and that poor writing is incredibly common in this country.
Their comments reminded me of the graduate level leadership class I taught a few years ago. Many of my master’s level students’ grammar was so poor, when I handed back my students’ first papers, I gave them a grammar lesson. Some class members were so offended and annoyed by this, they reported me to the dean, telling her that they did not pay $1500 for a grammar lesson. My stand remains the same.
I don’t care how great a leader you are. If you discredit yourself in every email you send, your career will be limited.
Here are some common errors to avoid in both written and spoken communication:
- “A lot” is two words.
- Incentify is not a word. Incent is.
- Too means also. To does not.
- There is no B in supposedly.
- Your crazy aunt can only visit once a year without you wanting to change your address, and this does not mean that you’re a bad person.
- You accept advice. You advise others.
- There is no X in especially.
- You lose your marbles when you don’t get enough sleep. Your jeans become loose when you stop eating Snickers bars.
- You accept advice, except when you think the other person isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
- Irregardless is not a word. Regardless is.
- “Where you at?” “Where are you,” will do.
- Please put your contact information on the bottom of your initial and reply emails. This is not a grammar thing, it would just be helpful.
Call me picky or old school. But I suspect that when you hear these errors made in conversation or see them in writing, you judge the other person. I know most hiring managers do. Hiring managers want to know employees can write reports and email clients without embarrassing the company.
You will be eliminated as a job candidate if your resume has typos. People will judge you when you use incorrect English. They won’t tell you they’re judging you. They’ll do it quietly or talk about you when you’re not there.
I spoke at a conference a few weeks ago where an attendee asked how to tell an employee she was going to be fired because her writing was so poor. She maintained client files and wrote client correspondence. Clients’ names were often wrong, in her written notes, as was spelling and grammar. The typos and grammar errors were a deal breaker. And they may be in your job as well.
Have someone proofread a few of your emails and reports, and ask for feedback on your writing. Ask the coworkers you’re close to to tell you when you make grammar errors in meetings. Of course you want them to tell you privately, after the meeting.
I write a bi-monthly column for the Denver Business Journal. I’m grateful that my editor reads this blog and emails me the typos and errors I make. I am not exempt.
Clean up your grammar and your writing, and accelerate your career. I promise it will work.
Reading emails as they come in is killing your productivity.
You’re at your desk working on a project. Aka, doing actual work. You think, “It’s been three minutes. I should check my email.” So you take your attention off your project and check your email. Then you read the next two emails that come in and check your voicemail. You then go back to the project you were working on and spend 10 to 20 minutes trying to get your head around what you were doing before reading all of those very important emails. Finally, you’re back in the groove. You do five minutes of work and think, “I should check my email.” Then it’s 5:30 pm and you realize, with frustration, that you finished nothing all day.
Living in our email inbox is why many of us start work at 5:00 pm or come into the office at 7:00 am to get “something done while it’s quiet.” It’s why we sleep and go on vacation with our phones, and are never really off.
I am most productive on airplanes without WIFI. Without WIFI I’m not tempted to check my email every three minutes or check Facebook to read about what people I barely know and don’t really care about are doing.
Without WIFI all there is to do is what I need to do. There are no other meaningful distractions, except for the B-grade movie I didn’t really want to see anyway. I am focused. And as a result, I get a lot done. I’m also less stressed. Because I’m focused, doing one thing a time, I’m not worried about everything I still need to do.
If you want to get more done and be less stressed, do one thing at a time, for a defined period of time. Decide how long you’re going to work on something, and work on that item for that period of time, with no distractions or interruptions. You may only work on something for ten or twenty minutes, but do only what you said you would do for that time period. Then you can check your email.
Productivity experts suggest you only check your email three times a day, for example, once in the morning, right before or after lunch, and at the end of the day. I find this hard to do. Like you, I feel pressured to check my inbox. Or I use my email to avoid the work I really need to do. But I know that constantly being in my email inbox has me distracted and not doing the work I really need to do. And as a result, I’m stressed and spend my evenings and weekends working on projects that require focused time.
Do one thing at a time, for a defined period of time. Just try it. If you’re going to read your email, give yourself 20 minutes, and do nothing but read, reply, and delete email. At the end of 20 minutes, do whatever you said you would do next, for as long as you decide, and nothing else.
See if you get more done, in less time, with less stress. You might just leave work earlier and have time to do something besides work.
Unfortunately you probably already know that people have a tendency to talk about you, not to you. It’s human nature. Sometimes it’s gossip. Other times senior leaders talk about your future with the organization. If you want to manage your career, you need to know what the people whose opinions you care about say about you when you’re not there.
Unfortunately most people get very little feedback at work. If today was the day of your performance appraisal and I asked how your boss and whoever else provides input on your review would rate you, you probably don’t know. This lack of knowledge prevents you from managing your career.
Not knowing someone’s opinion doesn’t mean you’re not subject to it. Akin to getting a speeding ticket when you didn’t know you were speeding. The cop doesn’t care. He adds four points to your driving record, despite that you didn’t know the speed limit.
You may work for a manager who gives feedback. You may not. It doesn’t matter. There are people in your life who will tell you the truth (as they see it), if you ask.
I recommend assembling a core group of people who you count on to tell you the truth. These are the people who know you well and have your back. They can be friends, family members, past coworkers, customers, or managers.
You might wonder, “What can my mom or friends from high school or college tell me about how I behave at work?” The answer–a lot.
We don’t become different people when we arrive at work. We are who we are. If you’re often late, break commitments, or wear clothing that’s not your friend, you do those things at home and at work. Likewise, if you have great attention to detail, never break commitments, and always look great (in public), you friends and family know.
Identify a few people, personal and/or professional, who care about you and will tell you the truth.
Tell these folks you want to eliminate your blind spots. Ask them for specific feedback, and promise that no matter what they say and how hard it is to hear, you will say “thank you.” Then be sure to manage yourself. It’s normal to become defensive when we get constructive feedback. But every time we become defensive, we train people it’s not safe to tell us the truth. If you want people to give you feedback, more than once, make it easy to tell you the truth.
You may be thinking that asking for feedback is unrealistic. People won’t be honest. And you can’t take it.
The people who really care about you will be honest, and you can take it. You’ll be fine. In fact you’ll be better off than before you had the conversations. You might hear things that pleasantly surprise you. And the things you don’t like? Just because no one talked to you about them before you asked, doesn’t mean those behaviors didn’t impact you. Now you can do something about them.
Get out of the dark and into control.
I had a colleague at my last job who was a peer and a friend. We were at a similar level and would periodically sit in one of our offices, with the door closed, talking about the bad decisions our company’s senior leaders made. One day I realized that these conversations were exhausting to me. They were negative and didn’t make me feel better. In fact, they made me feel worse.
Some people distinguish between gossip and venting, asserting that venting is cathartic and makes people feel better. It doesn’t.
I’ll use an analogy I read in one of Deepak Chopra’s books. When you put a plant in the closet and don’t give it light or water, it withers and dies. When you put a plant in the sunlight and water it, it grows. And the same is true for people. Whatever you give attention will proliferate. Whatever you deprive attention will go away.
Your life is made up of the people you spend time with and what you talk about. What are you talking about?
In addition to draining you of energy and ensuring you focus on the things that frustrate you, gossip kills the organization’s culture. If employees can’t trust that their peers won’t talk about them when they’re not there, there is no trust in the organization. And you can’t have real relationships without trust.
Gossip isn’t going anywhere. It’s a human phenomenon and is here to stay. But you can reduce gossip.
A few ways to reduce the gossip in your office:
- Address the gossip head on.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of gossip, which is not good for our culture.”
- Hold regular town hall meetings, and give employees information about initiatives, organizational changes, profitability, etc. Employees want to know how the company is really doing and what they can do to contribute.
- Create a no gossip policy.
“We want people talking directly to each other, rather than about each other. As a result, we’re putting a no gossip policy in place.”
- Draw attention to gossip.
“Every time you hear gossip, wave two fingers in the air. This will draw attention to the gossip without calling anyone out.
Also, ask your peers and friends not to gossip with you. End conversations that contain gossip. This will be hard to do, but if everyone does it, it will become much easier.”
- Have an agreed-upon consequence for gossip.
“Every time we hear gossip, the gossiper owes a dollar. Every quarter the gossipers will buy the office lunch from the gossip jar.”
The keys to reducing gossip in your office are to draw attention to the gossip, have a consequence for gossiping, and over communicate so your employees don’t have to make stuff up. Employees want to know what’s happening in the organization. In the absence of knowledge, people make stuff up, and it’s never good.
Venting and gossip are the same. Unless you’re planning a conversation with a coworker or friend to address a challenge or problem, you’re gossiping. And talking about what frustrates you will only make you more frustrated.
My advice: Do something about the things you can impact and let the other stuff go. Talk about the things that matter to you. Resist the temptation to speak negatively about the people around you. And know that anyone who will gossip about someone to you, will also gossip about you.
Despite what you may think, your manager has enough to do. So when you drop a problem at her door, she finds it annoying. Rather than just alerting your manager and the leaders in your organization to the things that need to be fixed, go one step further, and offer a solution yourself.
It’s fine to raise challenges. It’s better to raise challenges you’re willing to do something about. If you think two departments don’t talk to each other, bring them together. If you think a process is inefficient, propose a different way to get the work done. If you’re dissatisfied with software you’re using, offer to source three potential vendors and set up a demo. You’re doing the legwork and asking for a small investment of time.
When we ask for something at work, it often requires time, money, or both. Thus when an employee asks for something, it’s easier for a manager to say no than it is to say yes. “No” requires no work and no financial outlay. A “yes” may require both.
You make it easy to say yes to your requests when you:
- Propose a solution to a problem.
- Offer to do the work to solve the problem.
- Ask for small things that are easy to approve.
If you’re overwhelmed and want to hire an additional person, but your boss isn’t convinced you need the headcount, ask for a temp for a finite number of hours. It’s much easier for a manager to say yes to a small and known investment amount than to the long-term commitment of hiring someone new. The point is to ask for something that is easy for your manager to approve.
The word “pilot” is your friend. If you want to make a major change, pilot a scaled down version of your proposed solution in one or two locations, rather than in your organization’s 10 locations. Again, asking for something small makes it more likely that you’ll be told yes.
The bottom line is to be part of the solution – as trite and overused as that phrase is. Don’t be the person who says, “That’s broken” without also saying, “and here’s how we can fix it. Can I give it a try?”
Last week some unknown person sent me emails predicting my future. According to the anonymous clairvoyant, in ten years my life will be going well. I’ll have a son who is bright but doesn’t apply himself (shocking), and I’ll be offered a job in Oshkosh that I shouldn’t take. After the third predictive email, the sender wanted to know if I had questions about my future. I didn’t.
- The whole thing was wildly creepy.
- No one should take advice from someone with this much discretionary time. The emailer needs a volunteer job.
- Why would I want someone else to tell me my future? That’s something I enjoy creating.
I’ve got a friend who feels a black cloud follows her. She feels bad things repeatedly happen to her and there’s nothing she does to create these situations, which is, of course, complete garbage.
It may be easier to blame someone or something for the bad things that happen to you, but if someone else is responsible, you have no control. And if you have no control over what happens to you, there is nothing you can do to create the life you really want.
I see myself as 100% responsible for everything that happens to me. As antithetical as it sounds, life is easier when I’m accountable. If I miss a plane because of traffic, I should have left for the airport earlier. If I get overcharged in a restaurant, I should have checked the bill more carefully. If I do a bunch of work for a client and later find out that the work I did isn’t what the client really wanted, I should have asked more questions upfront and asked for feedback earlier.
When I’m responsible for what happens to me, I have some control. When someone else is responsible, I have no control.
I’ll admit to going to a psychic…once. In 2001 I took a transfer from Denver to New York. Living in New York was fun and exciting, and great for my career, but I didn’t enjoy living in such an urban city. I agonized over what to do for two years – go back to Denver, stay in New York, or move someplace else?
Desperately unhappy, but not being able to make a decision, I went to see a psychic. Clearly I had given up. I was going to let someone I’d never met, who didn’t know anything about me, decide my future. Unless you’re at the Jersey Shore and decide to have your palm read for fun, seeing a psychic is abdicating responsibility for your life.
Instead of seeking answers about what might happen, pursue the things you want. If you want a different job in your organization, tell someone who can do something about it. If you got passed over for a job, ask the hiring manager for feedback of what would have made you a better candidate. If the hiring manager doesn’t give you any information, ask your current boss to get the information for you. If one of your co-workers excludes you from projects, ask him why. If someone you work with seems to dislike you, ask for feedback about what you did to damage the relationship. Regardless of how challenging the situation and how disappointing the results, there is ALWAYS something you did to either contribute to the situation or something you can do to change the situation.
I don’t mean to tell you what to do. Nor do I mean to minimize how hard some life circumstances are. But I do want you to see yourself as in charge of what happens to you.
Create the life you want by:
1. Asking, “What do I really want, and what’s one thing I can do right now to get closer to that goal?” Then take one step. Then take one more, and so on.
2. If negative things are happening, ask, “What could I have done differently to have a different outcome?” Or, ask, “If I could do this over again, what would I do differently.” Then next time, do it differently.
Regardless of how hard or bad something is, there is ALWAYS something you can do to make the situation better. Take your life, your career and your relationships into your own hands, where they belong.
Email us if you want this phrase on a poster, note card, notebook, or magnet.
Vague is useless. Being vague is actually worse than useless. Being vague instills doubt in the people around you and reduces your credibility.
When a customer service agent answers my questions with words like, “That sounds right, I think so, or that should work,” I hang up and call back, hoping to get someone who can give me an affirmative answer. People do this to you too, they just don’t tell you about it.
Watch your language. If the answer is yes, say “Yes.” If the answer is no, say “No.” “I think so,” says neither yes nor no. Saying, “I think so” tells people you don’t really know.
A few phrases to avoid and what to say instead:
Avoid: “That should be done by Friday.”
Instead, give a final date. “That will be complete by Friday. If I can’t get it done by Friday, I’ll call you to let you know by 5:00 pm on Thursday.”
Avoid: “Sounds right.”
Instead, say, “That’s correct.”
Avoid: “We should be able to do that.”
Instead, say, “We can do that.”
Avoid: “I guess.”
Instead, say, “Yes” or “No.”
When I teach feedback training, the biggest thing training participants struggle with is specificity. “You’re difficult to work with.” “Your clothing is inappropriate.” “I just find you to be negative.” “You did a good job on that.” “It’s a pleasure to have you on the team.” All of this is vague and thus unhelpful to the feedback recipient. And the same is true when answering questions and making promises.
Tell people exactly what to expect. Even if they don’t like your answer, they’ll be happy to have a clear answer.
When the people we work with don’t do their jobs, we might find ourselves saying, “He should be more on top of things.” “She shouldn’t make commitments she can’t keep.” “He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that’s not my problem.” The challenge is, when your coworkers don’t perform, it is your problem.
When your coworkers don’t get you the information you need in a timely way, you miss deadlines. When you work from incorrect information, your reports are wrong. When others don’t work with you, you look bad. So you can be right all day about how others perform, and your reputation will still be negatively impacted.
I don’t suggest you enable your coworkers by doing the work others don’t. I do suggest you help your coworkers be successful by holding them accountable.
Here are a few things you can do to get what you need from your business relationships:
- Don’t assume others will meet deadlines. Check in periodically and ask, “What’s been done so far with the XYX project?” Notice, I didn’t suggest asking, “How are things going with the XYZ project.” “How are things going” is a greeting, not a question.
- Set iterative deadlines. If March 20th is your drop dead deadline, ask to see pieces of work incrementally. “Can I see the results of the survey on March 5th, the write up on March 10th, and the draft report on March 15th?” One of the biggest mistakes managers and project managers make is not practicing good delegation by setting iterative deadlines and reviewing work as it’s completed.
- Don’t just email and ask for updates. The people you work with are overwhelmed with email. And email is too passive. Visit people’s offices or pick up the phone. Saying, “I emailed him and haven’t heard back” makes you look as bad as the other person who missed a deadline.
You might be thinking, “Holding my coworkers accountable is awkward. I don’t have the formal authority, and I don’t want my coworkers to think I’m bossy or damage my business relationships.”
It’s all in the how you make requests.
If you’ve seen me speak or have read the business book How to Say Anything to Anyone, you know I believe in setting clear expectations at the beginning of anything new. That could sound something like, “I’m looking forward to working with you on the XYZ project. How would you feel if we set iterative deadlines, so we can discuss work as it is completed? You’ll get just-in-time input, making any necessary adjustments as we go, and we’ll stay ahead of schedule. How does that sound? How are the 5th, 10th, and 15th as mini deadlines for you?”
Many people put large projects off until the last minute. People procrastinate less when large projects are broken into smaller chunks with correlating deadlines. You strengthen your business relationships and support people in meeting deadlines and not procrastinating when you agree on completion dates when projects begin. Also, most of us unfortunately know what it’s like to put a lot of work into a project, have someone review our completed work, and then be told we went down the wrong path and need to start over. It’s days like this that make being a Walmart greeter seem appealing.
Ask more. Assume less. Don’t assume your coworkers will do what they’re supposed to do. Ask upfront to see pieces of work on agreed upon dates. Pick up the phone versus rely on email to communication. And know that the people you work closely with are a reflection of you. Strengthen your business relationships. Get people working with you, and everyone will look good.
I’m frequently asked the question, “Is there such a thing as too much candor?” Clients ask this question when an employee or coworker is telling anyone who will listen exactly what she thinks of just about everything. Incidents like these make managers and leaders hesitant to ask employees for feedback, not knowing how to turn off the well.
Yes, there can be too much candor. The truth is one ingredient in the recipe; it’s not the whole meal.
A few guidelines of when to speak up:
1. You have a relationship with the feedback recipient, and he will be able to hear you without becoming overly defensive.
2. You’ve been asked for your opinion.
3. You feel very strongly about an impending decision that has not yet been made.
When not to speak up:
1. The feedback recipient can’t change what you’re concerned about.
- If you’re concerned about a policy that isn’t changing, expressing an opinion is just complaining, which will negatively impact your reputation.
- The person you have feedback for can’t change that aspect of herself. For example, you comment that someone has a high, squeaky voice. That’s just an insult. And an insult isn’t feedback, no matter how hard you try to persuade yourself otherwise.
2. You don’t have a relationship with the feedback recipient and thus your message is likely to go on deaf ears.
3. You have not been asked for your opinion.
4. A decision has been made and at that point you’d just be talking to talk.
When managers ask me, “Is there such a thing as too much candor,” I suspect what they’re really asking me is, “How do I get my employees to be more discerning with the feedback they share, to whom, and how.”
Here are a few ways to guide employees who over communicate:
1. When you ask for feedback, tell people specifically on what you want feedback, in what format, and during what time horizon.
For example, tell employees, “We are looking for feedback on the new time-off policy. We’ll be asking for input at Friday’s town hall meeting. Please come to the meeting and share your thoughts. This will be the only opportunity to provide input.”
2. Tell employees who have a tendency to overwhelm with feedback or violate some of the guidelines listed above, “Your input is valuable. The more feedback you give, the harder it is to discern what’s important. Pick your battles. Give feedback on the things you feel really strongly about, and perhaps save other feedback for future opportunities.”
3. Tell employees who have a tendency to insult people with critical feedback, “How you deliver feedback influences whether or not people can hear your feedback and take action. No one likes to be told that she is wrong. Be careful not to attack people. Focus on the problem, not the person. Ask questions and make requests versus telling someone why what she is doing is wrong. Then, of course, tell the person to read chapters nine through twelve of my book How to Say Anything to Anyone.
Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should. None of us wants to damage relationships by insulting people or be labeled as a complainer. Pick your battles. Give feedback when you feel really strongly, a final decision has not been made, and you have a relationship with the recipient. And if you find yourself talking to talk, stop.
Most of us have heard the ‘motivational’ phrase, “Live every day as if it was your last.” I don’t think that’s a great plan. If I lived every day as if it was my last I’d say things I’d regret and eat so much chocolate, cookies, and ice cream, I’d be the size of a house. I’d prefer to ask this question: “How would I live if this was the best day of my life?”
If every day was going to be the best day of your life, what would you do? Who would you spend time with? What would you give your time and energy to? What would you think about? Our thoughts drive our daily experience more than anything else.
When I’m frustrated and stressed out, which is a regular occurrence, I ask myself, “What if today was the best day of my life?” And that question shifts my thoughts, which alters my experience. It quiets the constant churn in my brain, which has me feel like I’m a hamster on a treadmill of constant problem solving, and at times obsessing about what will and won’t be.
The next time you’re upset or having a bad day, ask yourself, “What if this was the best day of my life? What would I give my time, energy, and attention to?” And if your energy is misplaced, it’s easy to make that change.
The concept of simply choosing to be happy may sound unrealistic and pollyanna, but it’s working for me. When I’m frustrated and can get present enough to make a conscious choice about where to put my thoughts, versus being on auto pilot, I tell myself to choose to be happy. And it usually works. Just thinking, “I choose to be happy” gets me out of my regular thoughts, which typically take me nowhere good.
I have first world problems, and for the most part, so do you. The work gets done in time. The relationships work out, as do the finances. All you have is today. What are you doing with it?