Note: A modified version of this article ran on Elite Daily
I have two quick stories that illustrate one of my favorite lessons about business communications, each from the first couple of years of my career.
Story #1: Six weeks into my first job at a consulting firm, I was at my desk one day when an Outlook alert popped up with an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. I opened the email to find a single line of text that read, “Pls send me what you have been working on for Ted.” That’s all. The lack of a salutation, the commanding tone, and the absence of a “thank you” seemed a bit curt from a stranger. But it was the sign-off that annoyed me most. In lieu of signing her name, she signed with her first initial. Thus annoyed, I sent back a terse reply of my own with the document she wanted.
(Quick sidebar: Can we all agree that you need to be at least a VP-or-equivalent before you start signing emails with your initials?)
Story #2: Two years later, I was interviewing for a software startup. I had to present some of my work to the management team. At one point in my presentation, someone asked me a question that I didn’t think was relevant. Maybe I was trying to overcompensate for being way overdressed for the interview, so I (a bit too) breezily addressed the question by saying something like, “I guess you could do that, but it’s kind of beside the point right?” and moved on.
As it happened, the woman whose terse email I replied to was a managing director at the firm and happened to be my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. I doubt she was used to getting terse emails from 21-year olds who were still trying to figure out how to book conference rooms. And the man in the audience? He was not only a board member, but was one of the country’s most published academic economists. I would have never answered either of them so flippantly had I known who they were at the time. But in both cases, what followed was the exact opposite of what I would have expected to happen. The managing director had one of her lieutenants talk to me about joining their team. And the board member recommended that the CEO hire me, even though he had originally been against hiring me (I found out later). The common thread? In both cases, I communicated with my superiors like they were my peers, and they responded by making me a peer, or at least closer to being one.
Blissfully ignorant, I didn’t think twice about my interactions with my superiors. I didn’t second-guess myself, and I wasn’t afraid to stand behind my ideas. Sometimes, we need to remember what we learned as our younger, more fearless selves.
Four Easy Steps to Communicate Like a Peer with Your Bosses
One of the themes I revisit often at Smart Like How is the importance of thinking like a manager from the outset of your career. The reason being, a significant portion of your career advancement will be determined by whether you make your managers comfortable trusting you with more responsibility. Trust is built by showing your manager that you are focused on the same outcomes that they are, and that in a given situation you would make not just the right decision, but the same decision that they would.
Communicating with your superiors like peers is a subtler extension of the same practice of thinking like a manager from the outset. By interacting with your managers on their level, you encourage them to treat you like a peer as opposed to someone whose experience and judgment pales in comparison to their own. By communicating with them the way their peers do, you encourage their communication “muscle memory” to take over so they don’t think to adapt their style. You may find that communication gets a little more gruff at times as a result of their taking the kid gloves off, and that’s what you want.
So how do you start doing this? Well, particularly for folks that are brand-new to the workforce, step one is actually to stop making common mistakes that emphasize your status at the bottom of the totem pole. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t still be respectful, just not overly deferential.
1) Don’t Thank People When You Give Them Something
I spend a lot of time crafting emails to create the effect I want and reading between the lines of the ones I receive - maybe too much time. One of the things I’ve noticed is all these years of trying to infer the emotions behind peoples’ emails is new hires have a puzzling tendency to provide you something of value and then say “thanks”. It’s a weird habit when you think about it, but it’s not uncommon for a manager to get an email like this:
At best, the unnecessary “thank you” makes the sender seem like a sycophantic droid – the opposite of a peer. You shouldn’t have to thank someone for reading your email and graciously accepting your hard work. And at worst, it can make you come off as passive aggressive, which is also…blech. Anyway, if you want to sound more like one of the adults, thanking people only when you mean it is a good place to start.
2) Don’t Be a Pushover
Less-experienced professionals are often too timid in defending their ideas when more senior colleagues challenge them. Rather than explain their thinking, they abandon ideas at the first whiff of a challenge. In her 2003 Harvard Business Review article How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea, Kimberly Elsach called these people “The Pushovers”, noting that they, “…would rather unload an idea than defend it… One venture capitalist I spoke with offered the example of an entrepreneur who was seeking funding for a computer networking start-up. When the VCs raised concerns about an aspect of the device, the pitcher simply offered to remove it from the design, leading the investors to suspect that the pitcher didn’t really care about his idea.”
Sometimes people just want to test your thinking, and often you’ll have considered things your audience hasn’t (it is your idea after all). Don’t be belligerent in the face of well-founded criticism, but a peer to your boss wouldn’t bow out at the first challenge, and neither should you.
3) Don’t Be Over-Formal
Manners are important, but excessive formality can make you seem like a child. If you treat the person you’re interacting with like a head of state, you subtly encourage them to treat you like a servant. You can be polite and respectful without being submissive. If all you need to do is convey some information to someone who needs it, you don’t need the pomp and circumstance. Much like constantly thanking people, being too formal all the time gets tiresome and kind of cheapens it when you really mean it.
4) Use as Few Words as Possible
The origin of the quote is dubious, but for the sake of argument here, let Einstein be your guide and make your communications as simple as possible, and no simpler. Years ago, I worked for an executive who was one of the most poly-talented people I’ve ever met. He was verbose and capable of waxing philosophical on seemingly any topic, from great works of literature to obscure mathematics. But he was adamant that his direct reports explain things as simply as possible. He would claim to not understand your email or write-up on something and ask you to re-write it for clarity, even if he perfectly well understood what you meant. His was valid though: the more simply you can explain something to another person, the better you yourself understand it, and the more your audience will trust you. There’s no need to bury an idea in superfluous text or surround it with needlessly complicated words. You give your ideas their best chance to shine when you don’t hide them.
You might get fewer thank-yous and find yourself in more debates with your superiors when you encourage them to treat you like a peer. Don’t be discouraged; when the kid gloves come off, that’s a sign that you’re making real progress in your career.