It’s not about you

First thoughts: It is now 15 years since I began working with non-native speakers of English trying to find their way in corporate America. The clients have usually not been people who really needed to improve their English, per se. What they needed was to replace a style of communication appropriate to their country with something that would work in corporate America. The short essays here are intended to give some hints for effectively communicating in corporate America, whether you’re a non-native speaker or just somebody trying to move up the corporate ladder. This first essay addresses what I think is one of the biggest challenges people run into in the world of corporate e-mails: casual comments taken the wrong way.

If you’ve ever taken a writing class of any kind, one of the key questions you learned to ask yourself is: Who is my audience? But in an era where we write e-mails and texts more often than formal letters or proposals, it’s easy to forget that everything we write has an audience, and it may not be the audience we were expecting. Before you start to write anything, there are three questions you have to ask yourself:

  1. Who am I writing to?
  2. Who am I writing for?
  3. Who else might see this?

E-mails are copied to people. Maybe you’ve written someone and copied their manager. Or your manager. Sometimes, the whole purpose of responding to someone’s e-mail is not to respond to them, but to make sure that someone else sees your response. And before you hit send, you have to consider who they might copy in their response! This stuff should, of course, be corporate e-mail strategy 101. But way too often, people get burned. Once, I wrote an e-mail with a sarcastic tone. The person I wrote to was also a sarcastic person. And so he didn’t think twice before forwarding it. It made for a long day for both of us when someone higher up the chain took offense.

If you’re commenting on corporate strategy, and you think an idea is stupid, be very, very careful. If you’re commenting on friction between employees, be even more careful. Ask yourself, if a senior manager sees this, will she say, “Golly gee, what a clever person who wrote this”? Or will she see someone snarky and unhelpful? Go ahead and write your snarky e-mail. But do not fill in any recipients, that way you don’t accidentally send it before you delete it.

After you have written your snarky e-mail that captures what you think, it’s time to write a new one. In this one, you should express concern about people who are off track and suggestions about “refining” ideas that you think are problematic. Don’t say, “We tried this before!” Say, “When we tried this before, we had unexpected outcome X. If we make adjustment Y, it could change the results.” Keep yourself out of it. It’s not about what you think, but about what the business needs to avoid harm and to grow. Make sure your message is focused on what the company needs, not what you want. This exercise will not only help you position yourself as a team player, it will teach you to think like one.

Always remember to ask before you hit send: Would I be worried if I found out this was forwarded to the CEO? Or would I be glad she’s seeing my great ideas? This is the best way to serve not only your career, but also your team and your company.

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