Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations about Grammar

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

Does anyone on your team have suggestions for holding a crucial conversation with an employee regarding his or her grammar and spelling in written communications?

I have an employee who is an outstanding performer—absolutely top notch in every way, except one. She struggles with basic grammar and spelling in her e-mail—simple things like using the word “well” instead of “will” or “ruff” instead of “rough.” How do you tell an outstanding performer that something as basic as grammar and spelling is holding her back? I would like to help her improve in this area, but the discussion is exceedingly difficult to have without hurting feelings.

Wanting to Help

A  Dear Wanting,

Your question is connected to a variety of issues that people face regularly. Let me begin with a few comments before I answer your specific question.

When do I speak up? How serious does something have to be before I hold the conversation? Many people face this common challenge. First, let me say that sometimes something as basic as grammar, punctuality, or dress can seem to be a minor issue. Yet these issues bug us. We think about them and mentally frown and rant.

One approach for dealing with this is to give it time. Occasionally, time is a cure. And sometimes, it is not. So let’s take it a step further. When we go beyond simply being bothered by the issue to venting to others about it, the issue now has greater consequences. We are now part of the problem because we are affecting the person’s reputation. If an issue is so serious that we find ourselves acting it out instead of talking it out, we need to hold the conversation with the person in question.

How bad is bad? How bad does something have to be before you bring it up? If an issue affects only you, you can be exceptionally patient. But if the issue affects others, then bad becomes worse very quickly. Because grammar reflects on the quality and credibility of the organization, I consider it an important enough issue to address. So when the problem affects coworkers, customers, colleagues, and (in your case) people who determine who gets “held back” and who gets “promoted,” the issue is certainly serious enough to require a crucial conversation.

Your question: Here are some of the “givens” I see in your description of the situation. The issue is serious—her lack of good grammar affects many people. Her issue is an ability issue—it is not simply a motivation issue. She is a high performer in all other areas of her work. Your intention should be to help her not only with this skill, but also with her career. The following skills will make this challenge easier.

Make it safe to talk. Choose a time when you are in a good mood and a time when the employee is not stressed. You also need to choose a time when you can discuss this issue privately. Having observers will only reduce safety.

Begin with contrasting. Tell her what you are trying to achieve and what you are not intending. For example, “I would like to share an observation about one aspect of your work. I don’t intend for this to be a performance appraisal. What I’d like to do is share something that I think would be helpful in your career.” If she agrees, then share your observations—provide specific examples—and suggest you’d like to talk about the importance of grammar.

Come to an agreement. Does she agree that this is an issue? If she does, don’t give her solutions. Instead, ask her for potential solutions. If she has a good idea, make a plan. If she would like suggestions, come prepared to offer ideas. There are a lot of effective tools to help people with grammar—books, online tools, and public courses. If you are comfortable, you might suggest that you help coach her. However, I would like to add a point of caution: Many people feel more comfortable working to improve ability issues with people other than their boss.

In closing, if someone has bad grammar, turns in assignments just a few minutes late, or dresses in ways that cause you to cringe, you have an opportunity to decide how to take the next step. Remember, if it is affecting others or if you are acting it out instead of talking it out, you need to step up to the conversation.