Being understood in writing can be complex. The words we use express our expectations and tone, but readers often misinterpret the intention the author wishes to convey. In this edition of our business writing education series, author and book coach Anne Janzer explores how our expression of authority can unintentionally derail teamwork, and what to do about it.
Antonio manages a distributed team with people in different time zones. The team interacts daily through emails or messaging.
Antonio is frustrated that the team doesn’t collaborate well unless they’re all in a room together. When he tosses out an idea over email, either everyone agrees, or no one responds.
Heather is a recent, remote addition to Antonio’s team, hired to fill a critical gap in expertise. That’s not working well, either. Antonio thinks Heather does not contribute as much as he hoped, while she feels unappreciated and disengaged.
From Heather’s perspective, no one pays attention to her ideas and suggestions. This surprises her, because in her previous, in-person role, everyone went to her for advice. She’s wondering whether taking this job was a good idea.
What’s going on? Both Antonio and Heather feel like the team doesn’t respect their authority and abilities.
The problem may be as simple as the words people use when writing.
When speaking in person, facial, vocal, and body language clues guide us as we invite collaboration, negotiate power, and build off each other’s ideas. Unfortunately, this process doesn’t translate easily to writing.
Maybe you have experienced something similar.
Moving conversations to written channels leaves a lot behind. Stripped of their in-person cues and context, your words may make you look uncertain. They may annoy the people you are working with, shutting down true collaboration.
Let’s look at what might be happening on this team, starting with the new hire, Heather.
When words waive authority
As a woman who grew up in the United States, Heather has mastered collaborative conversation patterns. She gets along well with people and participates actively in problem solving. People who know her listen to her ideas and respect her knowledge.
But her conversational habits sneak into her writing. She uses phrases like “kind of” or “sort of” to dial back the intensity of her opinions—instinctively leaving room for other people to chime in. She hardly notices that she’s doing this, as she’s moving so quickly when messaging and emailing.
Unfortunately, these phrases make her seem less confident in her opinions and knowledge. Her new team members can’t put their fingers on it, but they don’t get the impression that she’s really an expert.
If you don’t feel like people take you seriously, take a hard look at your language patterns. Subtle words and phrases can chip away at your authority. You might damage your career prospects without realizing it.
At the other end of the extreme, people in positions of authority may not realize the dampening effect it has on others who report to them. That’s what is happening to Antonio.
Because he came up through the ranks, he isn’t accounting for the power imbalance when soliciting solutions and ideas from his team. He needs to pay more attention to language.
For example, imagine that you get an email message from a peer saying this:
“I think we should approach Acme as a partner. What do you think?”
If you have a good working relationship with this person, you’ll probably chime in with your opinion.
Now picture those same words in an email from your manager to the entire team (including new or remote employees):
“I think we should approach Acme as a partner. Comments?”
Disagreeing might seem risky, even if you have evidence.
Antonio needs to share power explicitly with his request, and genuinely invite input, moving from “I think” to “should we”. For example:
“Should we approach Acme as a partner? Does anyone have thoughts about why it might not work?”
With this approach, Antonio leaves room for others safely to contribute their thoughts, without seeming to disagree with him.
To invite collaboration, frame your words in a way that gives the other person agency and permission.
Managing the authority in your writing
As an authority on writing, WordRake is dedicated to helping you express yourself clearly. Your words either reinforce or erode your authority. They assert power or share power. And often, we do these things accidentally.
If this topic interests you, check out the two-part Writing with Authority video. Delivered by Erin Lebacqz and Anne Janzer, it delves into the why and how of writing with authority. Better yet, attend with your entire team and see if you can improve the way you work together.
About Anne Janzer
Anne Janzer is a nonfiction book coach and the author of multiple award-winning books on writing, including The Writer’s Process and Writing to Be Understood. She is fascinated by the science and mystery of writing, and is always searching for clues to better communication. Find her books and blog posts at AnneJanzer.com.