Featured image for Crucial Conversations about Grammar
Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations about Grammar

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

READ MORE

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.

Al

Headshot

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

30 thoughts on “Crucial Conversations about Grammar”

  1. I loved the article, however one thing may have been overlooked. Your overachiever may have dyslexia in which case the worker should be commended for her ability to communicate even if with challenges. Much help is available when a diagnosis is made and professional intervention takes place. When we focus on the abilities, the challenges are much easier to overcome.

  2. Immediately this question makes me wonder if this high-achieving employee has a learning disability that affects written communication but not the rest of her performance. She may be coping with dyslexia or related issues. The questioner should be sensitive to this possibility.
    Best regards,
    Mary Cole

  3. I serve on a non-profit board where the director was eventually fired because of this and other issues. I know even performance reviews ought to be crucial conversations, and I think that if we look at reviews as career development tools, then bringing this up at that time is not a problem. If you can live with the fault with the person in the current position, just make sure you say that this would be a future issue. For example, if they hope to advance to management or if they will have contact with customers, then they need to take some classes.

    I fear that many young people who have adopted shortcut wording, spelling, etc. will find themselves held back and not understand why.

  4. As a former English professor (in the private sector now for 25+ years), I would like to add a note of caution. Grammar — correct or incorrect — is deeply embedded in a person’s brain. The origins are what we heard in childhood, and the patterns have been reinforced a million times over by the time a person reaches adulthood. In this case, very poor early schooling may also have been an issue. Not to recognize the difference between rough and ruff is not just a spelling issue. It’s a fundamental word recognition issue. Very simply, it is very, very difficult for an adult to change these things. You are asking the person to “rewire” his or her brain. Certainly the issue should be addressed. Certainly help and tools should be offered. BUT in the interests of the organization, it might also be helpful to identify someone who would be willing — discretely and with confidentiality — to review this person’s written work before it is sent out.

    1. I am so grateful to read your post on this grammar issue and you are absolutely correct. I feel your post was directed it me and it is difficult to change this grammar thing around, like you said “is deeply embedded in a person’s brain.” How do one change this if it’s not Dyslexia. Any help?

      1. Read children’s books. Read a variety of books. Read aloud so you can hear the way proper grammar sounds.
        Listen to news on the radio, and watch news on the television. Read newspapers, magazines.
        Play grammar and language games on the computer, or on your phone.
        Commit yourself to changing this and you will.

  5. When the letter-writer asked “How do you tell an outstanding performer that something as basic as grammar and spelling is holding her back?” my immediate thought was “How can you NOT tell her?” Just yesterday, I explained to an employee he was consistently misusing the word “myself.” He was really appreciative and later that day asked me why I hadn’t told him that a year ago! It is crucial to correct egregious errors like the ones in her example; lesser infractions can be overlooked more easily. My employees love to find errors that I make, and we make a big joke out it. Even the letter-writer used the word “their” in correctly in the first sentence. Grammar is a tough one. Thanks for your thoughtful answer.

  6. Since an age was not mentioned, another aspect to consider may be the person’s use of technology such as texting, Facebook, etc where shortened forms of words, misspelling or poor grammar is acceptable. Many of today’s younger workers don’t seem to be brought up with the same emphasis on grammar and spelling as we were.

  7. I have seen this issue a lot, especially with respect to superiors in almost every professional position I have held. There seems to be an inverse relationship between grammar/spelling ability and fantastic management performance. (What does this say about me?) Most of the time, the manager is aware of his/her shortcoming, and will openly admit it and ask for comments. I have often taken proofreading duties upon myself in the interest of promoting credibility for my group or department.

  8. Great article! This is helpful insight as we have a number of employees (Salespeople nonetheless) who struggle with this issue. I like the approach and will encourage other managers to use. However, our primary issue is that our Vice President is horrific in his writing and grammar. The internal emails he sends on a regular basis, to the entire company, are atrocious. We are constantly embarrassed for him. Many of us have tried to have this conversation with him in the past, and it has simply fallen on deaf ears. The worse part is motivating our employees to continuously improve when our VP is setting such a horrible example. He doesn’t see the need for change. Any suggestions?

  9. Some of the spelling issues may be due to dyslexia which is not a quick fix.

    Adult dyslexics need professional assistance.

    Here is a resource for managers et al. who work with dyslexics:

    Adult Dyslexia: A Guide for the Workplace
    Gary Fitzgibbon, Brian O’Connor

  10. Add another vote for the potential, hidden learning disability.

    I once worked with someone who was a talented supervisor but who could not write an email, memo, letter, or any other form of communication without the “cringe factor.” Whenever our boss made comment of it (which was sometimes in public), you could see him begin to internally withdraw, and instead of “yeh, sure, I know I can do that better” he left these sessions humiliated and defeated.

    Some things we can coach our people forward with, and others are “hard wired” and we can lose someone if we inadvertantly use the “work harder” or “work smarter” phrase, which would be pure torture for someone who probably heard this all throughout their schooling.

    So something to keep in mind in that conversation: chances are good you are not in a job where you can diagnose a learning disability in a co-worker, so a good reason to tread lightly because there may be some very deep scars on top of an inability to change who they are.

  11. You’re going to shoot me, but bear with me, please. You kicked this off by asking the following, Does anyone on your team have suggestions for holding a crucial conversation with an employee regarding their grammar and spelling in written communications? There’s a grammatical mistake in this question, and I had to ask myself if I felt it was worth the effort to point it out; evidently, I decided to point it out. You ask us to imagine an employee, that’s a singular noun, and you then ask us to think about their grammar; here’s the mistake, but it’s complicated. Their is either a possessive pronoun or adjective (jury’s out on this), but, at any rate, it should correspond to a plural reference. You could have asked about having conversations with employees about their grammar and spelling, and the their in that sentence would properly refer to the plural reference, employees. Now here’s the complication, we’re so sensitive, as we should well be, with inclusive language that we through our real-time language usage are coming close to changing the grammatical rules so as to avoid both a.) the grammatically correct construction, [Does anyone on your team have suggestions for holding a crucial conversation with an employee regarding HIS grammar and spelling in written communications?] and b.) the burdensome tongue twister, [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?] in favor of converting their from what use to be a plural possessive to what is now fast becoming an acceptable singular possessive all because we would rather avoid using the singular and exclusive HIS in these cases. Personally, since there is more than one way to skin a cat (apologies to cat lovers), I prefer making the reference noun plural and using THEIR whenever possible. If I can’t, then I make it a point to use the HIS OR HER possessive construction. Isn’t it interesting that grammar evolves through language usage? So, that conversation with that employee might be a long one because of the implications, but it would be worth every minute and every word in my opinion.

  12. @Pat Bellace
    Thank you for your interesting post. It reminds me of a major influence on me as a youth, namely foreign languages. I studied three different languages and eventually settled on German. It has always amazed me how learning the rules, syntax, etc. of a foreign language has so greatly helped me with my English. (Finally all that useless information I learned in English classes makes sense…)

    Whenever I discuss career choices and college with young people, I always encourage them to study foreign languages in order to improve their communications skills.

  13. “Having” bad grammar could mean the person needs better grammar education, or it could mean the person is dyslexic or has another way of processing information that results in errors. Actually, the errors that were pointed out were spelling, not grammar. My point is that the conversation should explore the facts with a mind WIDE open to the possibility that the obvious cause or solution is not the correct one.

  14. Greetings,

    I have had to have this conversation with some of my managers and one suggestion that has helped is to have them put automatic spell and grammar checks on all outgoing e-mails. I reinforce the need for this because of the belief that your written word is an extension of you – and that we all want that to be a positive.

    Vicky

  15. I, also, wondered about the persons age. I have been doing some research on the 4 generations in the workforce and what is very obvious, is the need to approach each generation a little differently to get the results you want. The new generation of workers use texting so much, it becomes habit to use text spelling. Should they be aware of this and polish it up for business communications? Absolutely. However, you might want to consider the generation and how to best address the person or you run the risk of not being able to communicate the importance in a way the person will understand.

    Annamarie

  16. If the issue is Dyslexia, automated spell check is the worst thing to use. Spell check can totally change the meaning of a misspelled word. We have five dyslexic people in my family. I have asked them all to turn off the spell check unless they check the changed words in a dictionary.

  17. One more comment on dyslexia. My daughter had dyslexia, and I sit on the board of our local learning disabilities association. Dyslexia is a very common cause of such problems, and even adult compensated dyslexics struggle with spelling. Spelling, for most dyslexics, remains the most difficult challenge even after they’ve conquered reading. This then becomes an ability issue, but not an easy one to overcome. One of the best things a person with a disability can do in the workplace is self-declare, but it’s risky. Self-declare in a recruitment process and you might not get hired. Self-declare after being hired and your employer might think you misled them. Of course, legally, self-declaring should not hurt your chances of being hired, but that’s not the reality.

    Still, once you are working somewhere, letting your colleagues know you have dyslexia will make them much more understanding of things like misspelling. Spell check helps a lot, but as one other noted only when you are careful about using the correct word by coupling it with checking a dictionary. There are a lot of other assistive technologies/softwares an employer can consider providing, some of the quite cheap, like voice to text software.

  18. Regarding “their” with a singular object. Language changes. Rather than say “his or her” or “her or his” every time, it has become acceptable to use a plural “their” with a singular subject. And personally, and as an English Composition instructor at the University level, I like the less complex construction. What I do ask for, however, is consistency within the document. Switching from “his or her” to “their” is not acceptable.

    BTW, there is nothing wrong with split infinitives, either. To quote Churchill, “This is something up with which I will not put.” is a tad more complex than saying “This is something I will not put up with.”

    That said, I second the whole concern about learning disabilities. However, if the employee does not have learning disabilities, it is possible to overcome lousy teaching and “rewire the brain.” And it would behoove the employee to do that.

    If there is a learning disability, the coping strategy is to get help. Word has a marginal grammar checker, and the spell checker is good, as long as the “wrong” word you isn’t also a correctly spelled word. I call those “spell check errors.” Sentences of construction more complex than “See Jane run” totally discombobulate the grammar checker.

    Getting someone to look at the composition before hitting “send” is another important coping strategy. It is no different than someone with a mobility impairment using wheelchair or crutch to move, or a hearing impaired person using a hearing aid.

  19. I learned a great phrase to use in this sort of situation from a friend in the music business. He has a great voice, and is moving up in the opera world. A (famous)conductor told him, “You need more work on your foreign languages. Your skills are OK — but ‘OK’ isn’t good enough for the [insert name of very famous opera company here].” I’ve used this approach with a junior colleague who will benefit from more polished business communication (not grammar issues, just informality — there’s the generation thing again).

  20. Pat Bellace :As a former English professor (in the private sector now for 25+ years), I would like to add a note of caution. Grammar — correct or incorrect — is deeply embedded in a person’s brain. The origins are what we heard in childhood, and the patterns have been reinforced a million times over by the time a person reaches adulthood. In this case, very poor early schooling may also have been an issue. Not to recognize the difference between rough and ruff is not just a spelling issue. It’s a fundamental word recognition issue. Very simply, it is very, very difficult for an adult to change these things. You are asking the person to “rewire” his or her brain. Certainly the issue should be addressed. Certainly help and tools should be offered. BUT in the interests of the organization, it might also be helpful to identify someone who would be willing — discretely and with confidentiality — to review this person’s written work before it is sent out.

    Your last sentence says a lot about the idea in business that educated, trained administrative assistants or secretaries are not needed any more. After many, many years, I finally have a job wherein I go over the letters my boss sends out and fix them before they go out. Too many employers want to “cheap out” by cutting secretarial/clerical jobs.

  21. Does anyone on your team have suggestions for holding a crucial conversation with an employee regarding THEIR [should be: HIS or HER, as THEIR is a plural possessive!] grammar and spelling in written communications?

  22. i have seen many bad comments here from people that say that its a bit complicated for them, actually i have found that the best way to correct and improve your grammar is just to keep practice, and if you can, so try also talking with people during the day…

  23. I agree with the suggestions that a learning disability is a strong possibility. While having someone available to review written materials/e-mails might be an option, a more empowering one would be to make tools available that help this employee make these improvements on their own. Use of a speech-to-text program such as Dragon Naturally Speaking would take care of the examples you’ve described and allow this employee to take responsibility and ownership of their work.

  24. As the initator of this particular question I’d just like to add a few comments. First, the crucial conversation went very, very well and I thank Vital Smarts for their help! Second, the use of “their” was simply the best way I thought of to use and not reveal whether the individual is a man or a woman. Granted, the way it is written now is much better! Third, and possibly most important… Our friends at Vital Smarts have (slightly) altered my question. Mostly shortened it up and I would guess they shortened it up to save print space, which is to be expected in this venue. So my point is that what we read in the questions given, is not always exactly what was originally written.

  25. When I was in college, Pat Bellace was one of my professors. She was a “hard” teacher, but one of the best I ever had. I will always be thankful for the “hard” teachers I had. Pat, wherever you are, thanks.

Leave a Reply