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Be Careful What You Say

I try not to be angry at work. It isn't always easy and it takes discipline, but it is possible. For me, it took years of experience to get to a place where I can let things roll off my shoulders, and sometimes I still fail. Lately, I have been thankful for the ability to work from home, for the ability to sit behind my computer screen and yell without repercussions. I pray that my Microsoft Teams doesn't miraculously go off mute, and sometimes I think it might not be so bad if I was able to tell people what is really on my mind (the way I want to say it). And then I have to remember where I am and what position I am in.

If you think individuals with power in your organizations don't struggle with the same things you do, you're wrong. I have had my buttons pushed recently and it has mentally taken me back to a place where I cannot control my feelings (the Brittany from 10+ years ago). I sit behind my computer and scream at it saying things like, "Did you really just put that in an email?" or "I can't believe you just said that to your superior." And I have to bite my tongue, take time to calm down, and address the situation with a cool head. As I address this topic, Be Careful What You Say, you should know that I am still learning in this area. My points below are things I have to remind myself of on almost a daily basis, but it was a young professional's recent behavior that inspired me to write this blog post. Let's take a look...

1. Know your audience

When I first started out my career I was always so nervous to speak to our CEO that I would just start rambling. He would look at me and say, "Stop. Walk out. Think about what you want to say. Come back. Start over." While your colleague sitting next to you may have time to listen to your rant, I can guarantee the CEO does not. Before you address your audience, you need to know to whom you are speaking. (No matter who that audience is, I would argue that you should always be respectful).  

Are you writing/speaking to a co-worker, a client, your intern, or the CEO? Depending on who you are addressing, you will need to tailor your message. A good rule of thumb is: The higher up the individual is in the organization, the more "to the point" and precise you will need to be in your writing/speaking style. The people that are lower on the totem pole are typically executing on initiatives and require more details to effectively complete their job. As you move closer in ranking to the CEO, the less time they have, the more high level you need to be. 

You should always be specific: Identify what the purpose of your communication is. Are you requesting information, providing a status update, or delegating an action item? Does your email have an introduction, body, and conclusion? Clearly state what you are asking for. Writing a long, drawn out email (or telling a longwinded story) can sometimes leave your colleague thinking, "Get to the point!". 

...And I will end on that note ;)

P.S. Make sure you spell their name correctly. You just look sloppy and not detail-oriented when you can't even get that right. Their name is typically in their email, so there should be no excuses for spelling someone's name wrong.

2. CAPS are uncalled for

Unless you are sending a HAPPY BIRTHDAY message, caps lock should never be used in an email. Caps lock typically implies that you are yelling at the email recipient and this type of communication is completely unprofessional. If you are angry at someone, I would encourage you to have someone else take a look at the email before you send it. Even better, speak to them in person!

Whenever I feel my blood pressure is elevated and I am about to send a heated email, I have my husband or a trusted coworker read it through beforehand. If it looks like I am going to regret hitting Send, I ask them to help me modify it. Yelling at someone via email is passive aggressive and only contributes to a toxic work environment and could get you into a lot of trouble if the email gets forwarded to your boss or HR. Take a step back and think about how your email could be interpreted, then modify it. Trust me, you will thank me later.

3. Your tone matters

Verbal or written, when you are angry it is important that you remain professional, even if someone tries to bait you into a [written] argument. I recently heard a young professional (YP) sass their superior (I use the term sass as it sounded like she was throwing a fit because she didn't get her way) and I almost stepped in. The superior quietly listened to her speak her peace and then clearly explained the reasoning behind their decision. When the YP tried to reengage, he shut it down immediately. He initially gave her the option to bow out of the conversation and she didn't take it, she chose to try and prove him wrong so he had to publicly tell her it was not her place to make these decisions and he was not required to explain himself to her.

There are 100 ways to communicate a message and, honestly, I was shocked at the tone coming out of this YP's mouth. I will always tell you to stick up for what you believe in and that it is ok to address an issue no matter what level you are within the organization - but that also means understanding the most effective method to get your point across and knowing when enough is enough. Some suggestions I have are: 

  • Make sure you fully understand the topic. If not, ask questions for understanding. Not everyone is a great communicator, which means they sometimes leave critical pieces of information out. Give them the benefit of the doubt before you jump down their throat.
  • Understand the Why? - If you are concerned, don't just work to understand what the topic is, but why this decision is being executed. What are the benefits for the stakeholders?
  • Make sure your emotions are not high and address your concerns. Where possible, come with facts & figures (Managers think in numbers!). 
  • Listen! to the responses of your colleagues/superiors, do not interrupt, reflect on what they say, then respond. If they tell you that a point is non-negotiable then it is ok to say, "I respectfully disagree.", but you should not hammer your point in multiple times in hopes that you will eventually get your way (unless there is something unethical happening).

In this particular example I kept thinking they must have grown up with a silver spoon in their mouth, no respect for authority, and has probably never heard the word no, because their comments came across like a temper tantrum. Sometimes it is better to say nothing than to feel better in the moment by saying something to retaliate or drive your own personal agenda. 

4. Bring the right people into your discussions

I wrote a junior employee (approx. 2 years out of college) an email asking why they forwarded a meeting invite to a large group of people when the topic was supposed to be high level and small circle. I kept the email to the two of us, to give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't understand the intent of the meeting and not call them out publicly. That individual, frustrated for being called out, CC'ed my boss, their boss, and an individual from the Board of Directors (BoD), and wrote a page long explanation on why they believed they were in the right. All of this over a meeting invite. 

I will come back to my point about the temper tantrum: When you start to bring someone from the BoD, or even Directors into a discussion like the one that I was referring to, it appears as if you are trying to flex your connections to get what you want. It sounds like such a trivial example, but when these things add up you can imagine how tough it is to trust a coworker like this. Not only that, but we have to be conscious of whose time we are taking up by engaging them in such discussions.

As we send emails or create meeting invitations, we need to make sure that our purpose is clear, our audience is targeted and that we are not wasting anyone's time. I can't tell you how many times I have sat in a meeting and thought to myself, "What is my purpose for being here?" or read an email and thought, "Was this meant for me?". I would encourage you to be conscious of this as you move forward in your career, and make sure that you are bringing the right people into your discussions.

Wherever you are in your career, I find these points can always come in handy. I know that I still experience similar struggles and, as I watch others do the same, it is important for me to address the topic. We are all growing (hopefully our entire lives!) so, while these points may seem like common sense to one person, someone else might be at a different point in their career. If you see something like this happening in your organization, talk to the person and provide them with some of these points to put them on a better path.

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