Don’t change, evolve!

If you have had issues with communication – or anything else – there may come a point when you learn something new that changes everything for how you were thinking. A word to the wise: When you’re ready to make a change, you should show, not tell.

Have you ever worked for a manager who said “just this once” at least twice a week? A colleague who was always going to have the data for you next week for sure? A friend who is reliably ten minutes late? We’ve all met these people. Many of us have been one or more of them. But then something happens and they – we – realize something has to give. Here’s the thing: old habits die hard, and telling people you’ll change when you’re not going to is a habit that surrounds all the other habits.

This blog is about career communication, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. Imagine you are the sort who never speaks up in a meeting. Your manager has questioned whether you’re having an impact within the team. That’s a danger sign, and you know you need to do something different. But if you come in tomorrow pounding the table and telling everybody what’s what, not only will you have stirred up people who weren’t ready for it. You will have burned through social capital with people who appreciated your low-key approach more than your manager. So the key is to speak up gradually.

If you’ve been low-key in meetings before, but you really need to make something happen, research the hell out of it. Make sure you have your points nailed down. And choose what you’re going to say to insert yourself into the conversation… not the idea, the actual words. This is a speech you’re preparing for a very short, impromptu presentation. Make sure you pay attention in the meeting and lead with your two or three sentences. Then shut up and allow for questions. (If you’re nervous, feed a colleague you trust a question to ask.) This is it for the first meeting.

Over the next couple weeks, you can try to insert yourself two or three times on one or two issues. Stick to a few issues so the impression given is that you’ve started to speak up because this is something you care about and just couldn’t sit still and listen about it any longer. In this way, you’ll be starting to make an impact, but without making such a dramatic change that your old friends are taken aback but those you’re speaking up toward don’t believe it. From there, you have to keep living the change. In time, it will be real and you’ll have made it happen.

The same thing goes with another common issue: chronic lateness. Do not announce that from now on you’ll always be on time. Just be on time. If you don’t make it every time, no one will be more judgemental than they were before but if you’ve made a fuss, people will be keeping score. When you stop having people joke that you’re early because you were on time, you’ll know that your change is complete and you’ll notice people stop secretly making side plans to cover for your inevitable lateness and the issues it causes. This is how you make a change.

So, to recap: When you’re making a change, take it slow and steady. Allow a little room for backsliding by making the change instead of talking about it and getting people watching for you to fail. In time, you’ll be living in a different and better world for you and what you were trying to change will have been forgotten by most.

It’s not about me

Earlier, I wrote a general post, It’s not about you, that discussed the importance of focusing on business and people impacts, not your own personal feelings, when you are e-mailing. Today, I would like to take a look at this in my own career.

There was a time when I was young and foolish, when I thought that the fact that something troubled me was enough to warrant pushing for corporate change. In this case, it had to to with the way certain aspects of customer intake where handled in the organization. I wrote to my boss, in copy to his superior, that I was spending too much time on something I didn’t think was my job. I imagine my boss heard about it from his superior. I know I heard about it in all directions. And with good reason: I had kicked up a fuss without offering either a definition of the problem nor any good solutions.

I subsequently backed up and made some adjustments to my own workflow. And I discovered that I could work with the adjustments in a way that was satisfactory to me. But the business results in customer intake faltered. Here, then, was a problem not for me, but for the organization. And as I looked at it, I realized that I myself did not have enough cycles to fix it – I was hourly and not allowed overtime. This time I pulled up the numbers, made graphs of several inputs and outputs, and showed that there was a cost to the way we were doing things. This time, when I wrote, I closed by noting that in my own role, things were working fine – no negative feedback on metrics related specifically to my job description – but that what was happening wasn’t healthy for the business.

My second e-mail got a lot more attention because it was not about me, but about the business. It wasn’t based on feelings, but on data. And it didn’t simply say that something wasn’t right, it highlighted missed opportunities. This prompted a review of the workflow in the office and this time changes were made.

I’ve learned a lot since then – it was more than a decade ago – and since then I have helped others avoid the same mistake I made.

To learn more about how I can help you, please visit my main page at career-communication.com.

Communication in the era of COVID: issues with ZOOM calls

When I started working in corporate America, we had a CEO who hated e-mail. He would tell everyone to stop playing games copying everybody all over the place and just pick up the phone. The phone had two definite advantages: It was immediate, and you could speak candidly without leaving a permanent record. The downside, of course, is that your side of the conversation could be misreported by the other party, and the other party wasn’t tied down to any commitments they had made. That’s why, in my experience, it’s a good idea to go with e-mail if you really want to get something done, not just feel good about things getting done when you hang up the phone.

In the era of COVID, though, we’re moving into different types of challenges for communication. One of the biggest is the ZOOM call. At its best, ZOOM and other such platforms allow a small group of people to get together, work sort of face to face, and then get to work on what was decided. But the more people on a call, the more things are going to blend in with an old style corporate conference call. This means that when you speak, maybe half the people are listening and the other half are working on something else. Worse, the half that are working on something else will be listening for keywords and will tend to pop up with questions or comments about things that were discussed twenty minutes ago. Worst of all, some of the time you’re going to be the person who was working on something else. Those lower than you on the totem pole will grumble, but if anybody above you happens to be paying attention at that moment, this is also an opportunity to make a bad impression.

They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. The ZOOM call doesn’t change this. But it can be a challenge because the things that catch attention now – the confused response when your name comes up, your talking too long or cutting something too short and all those other things that make certain meetings tedious – are not things where you can feel the mood in the room. And yet, everything you do – and some things you don’t – will affect how you are positioning yourself for the others on the call.

A few tips:

  1. Pay attention to the number of attendees going up or down.
  2. If you’re speaking and another mic cuts in, make sure you’re not cutting someone off.
  3. Before the meeting, have a list of keywords you’re watching for, but make sure to note other ways those topics might come up. You don’t want to miss something because you were paying attention for the wrong thing.
  4. Watch the chat and the microphone icons. If someone who usually has useful comments isn’t saying anything, they may be trying to communicate. Looping them in will both advance the meeting and make you a friend.
  5. Be extra polite. You can’t really tell who’s listening without saying anything and you want to be sure who is frustrated but silent the way you can in an in-person meeting.

Above all, remember that even after COVID, a lot more people are going to be working from home. But we’re not in the era of The Year Without Pants anymore. A lot of the people working from home will not be techies who think Slack is the greatest thing ever invented. So you still need to watch your communication. The message you’re giving is nice, but the impression you’re giving is going to be super important for building alliances, getting your points across and having people want to make the things you believe in happen. Stay safe out there!

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.