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Do Power Dynamics Exist in Written Business English?

Corporate culture is changing fast. People need to be enticed to engage with companies, from recruitment through to all interfaces.

The result? Today companies have to sell themselves in every aspect of their communication. And this can be a tall order for some companies, considering how things were in the past and how written business English has and continues to evolve.

Alongside this, we see corporate open-door policies really taking off, such as that at Alphabet Inc. An open-door policy means that senior managers, even CEOs, actively leave their doors open, so that any member of staff, at any level, feels more welcome and enabled to access them, in order to present their ideas or concerns.

The power dynamic is affected by this development – and this naturally has a spill over effect into all communication, including written messages. It’s in stark contrast to the hierarchical structures that prevailed in the past, when managers would send written messages expressing power to subordinates, as the unquestioned norm.

My focus in this article will be on the increasing belief that the leadership of tomorrow is much more likely to be about inclusivity; about being part of the team and learning with the team and the impact this has on business writing.

Power dynamics in written communications

There’s little doubt about it: today’s business communication is increasingly composed of written messages.

There was a time some way back, when if you asked teams what they meant by the term ‘business writing’ they would reply that it meant reports, meetings notes / minutes, formal letters, and other ‘traditional’ documentation.

The hierarchical structure of the past formal documentation has gone. I well remember that, when I was a young graduate entrant to the workplace (some time ago!), my manager never expected to send my or other new entrants’ letters out unvetted. It was just the way it was. He rarely found mistakes, but he felt junior staff had to be checked. Such meticulous overseeing now seems so unnecessary if you appoint people with the skills and desire to get writing right.

However, if you ask the question today ‘what is business writing?’, you’ll get a different answer. The subject is so wide-ranging. It’s just as much about e-writing – whether email, websites, instant messaging (IM), customer iteration and social media posts etc.

In terms of style, it’s interesting how email now seems ‘traditional’ writing – whilst IM is increasingly casual and emoji-laden. In this respect, newer entrants to the workplace can actually hold new power because they can be better versed in this and more attuned to the changing patterns in punctuation – and attendant meaning!

Naturally, it’s a terrific development if we can all bring proficiency and empathy to the task and all pull towards a common goal. So if we subscribe to this view, the power dynamics are changing. And in terms of business writing, this involves (or should involve) managers:

  • seeing things from their readers’ perspectives
  • actively using ‘people words’ to convey the human touch (still a challenge for AI which I mention later)
  • drawing people towards them / their organization / their business goals - rather than pushing them away

Short isn’t always sweet

What I’ve just written is all very well - but (there’s always a but) in an attention economy, busy managers in particular can get into the bad habit of believing that short form solves all.

It doesn’t.

Some managers can mistakenly feel that shortening their written messages to the point of being curt, can be a sign of authority. Their writing can imply:

‘There you are: this is the solution. Do it.’

This can be so wrong, can’t it? Perception matters. Writing isn’t good if it alienates, even demotivates staff.

Of course, concise can be good – but not where it can be taken as disrespectful, insensitive or apathetic.

Putting theory into practice

So, in terms of business writing, what examples can I give? Well, here’s a typical example.

A boss often feels totally justified in writing to staff:

‘You must’ (instruction follows)…

They see the instruction as essential and indeed it might be – and it might be the correct terminology. But if a boss uses ‘you must’ just as a default wording, they may not realize it can be a barrier, that maybe implies that staff haven’t been doing something correctly. Such language can also be viewed as reflecting the 'top-down' hierarchical culture now seen at odds with the more favoured open-door policy.

Have you come across this?

In workshops I run, we find this wording can really work better:

We all really need to…’ or ‘it’s essential that we all…’ (instruction and reasons why)

Stating ‘we all’ makes the instruction inclusive and it gives reasons for ‘the must.’ By doing so, the power dynamic becomes balanced.

As another example, we can see the ‘dry’ reporting style of some managers who continue to use impersonal language (maybe unknowingly, maybe on purpose), which distances them from their teams, such as:

Results appear to show a better outcome than expected in adverse market conditions

More savvy managers realise that rewording the same scenario as follows, works so much better:

Well done all! Thanks to great collaborative effort, we’ve exceeded market expectations.

When I discuss this in workshops, it's so noticeable how people's faces light up at this rewrite. Why? Time after time it's the human touch which will always help writing appear inclusive and get people on board as equals working towards company success. Who doesn’t like to hear thanks for good work?

Balancing the power dynamics: be definitive without being diminutive

Sure, guidelines are necessary to make clear that some things can’t be discussed ad infinitum.

And I’ve used this expression on purpose because even an expression such as ‘ad infinitum’ could be a barrier expression that some managers might use (again deliberately, or perhaps unknowingly) to suggest ‘I’m cleverer than you’.

If your readership definitely knows the term, that’s fine. If some don’t know it is the Latin for ‘again and again; forever’ then use plain English!

Define things without making your staff feel small. That’s what I mean by ‘be definitive without being diminutive’. Be prepared and be able to explain not just the topics you cover but right down to the actual words you use: clearly at all times, with empathy! Do it at source, not just when people dare to come back with questions.

Here’s a recent example I’ve come across where luckily the employee did feedback their reaction to this written message from their boss.

A native English speaker boss read a project proposal from a member of his global team who was not a native English speaker. The boss had come across many such scenarios in his extensive experience and felt the suggestion would be unworkable in light of this.

Hence his reply, which he felt was fully considered and acceptable:

‘This project hasn’t got any legs.’

How do you think the employee in question felt?

First of all, there was a real possibility she might not understand the idiom ‘not having legs.’ It was a very direct expression that meant the project wouldn’t work. Then if the employee did understand it, do you think she felt the boss was justifiably authoritative in view of years of experience, and communicating exactly how a boss should?

Let me tell you, she did not. Very fortunately. she was able to tell the boss that this comment made her feel very small – and also, fortunately, the boss was mortified. The episode had come over as a power dynamic that he had not intended.

This particular boss reckoned he should have written something more along the lines of:

There’s definitely merit in what you’re suggesting but unfortunately, my experience shows me that similar projects have gone under too many times. So, sadly, we won’t be able to use this one.’

This message does use more words. But it also shows that conciseness can be great – but doesn’t always have to be the end game in getting business writing across. Getting the right outcomes is.

What about global teams with non-native English speakers?

Here’s another angle we see a lot. Bosses who are not native English speakers do have to use English globally.

At times they sense their lack of proficiency hampers their negotiating powers. They can feel they’re losing the upper hand if say, a native speaker middle manager conducts the messaging and interpretation required.

Here’s an example. A native English-speaking manager met with his non-native English-speaking team member who was negotiating a new overseas contract. The boss referred to the lack of resources that needed to be addressed. The negotiator misheard ‘lack of resources’ as ‘lake of resources’ and this is what he translated and wrote in the emails that followed, which the boss didn’t see.

The meaning was naturally quite the reverse. Resources were limited, not abundant.

The power dynamic was unexpectedly altered as the boss wanted more money allocated to the company budget. The mistranslation by a more junior manager meant that the bottom line was adversely affected. The Board took it to mean there was sufficient funding. This was simply on the basis of unchecked business English written in a multinational context.

There’s learning for everyone here

Power dynamics have long been entrenched in the workplace and are constantly evolving; everyone has their part to play in creating a valued team.

Learning for managers

  • Don’t be abrasive – you’re part of a team
  • Provide context where needed
  • Work out just to what extent you need to be copied into messages so that staff understand the power dynamics. Explain what you need from them
  • Simply want to be copied in so that you can pick up on the trail (if necessary)? Then let your staff know that’s your way of working
  • Have just the right amount of gravitas
  • Understand possible differences in cultural and gender communication

Learning for other staff:

  • Read all messages and check you’ve understood them
  • Ask for clarification if unsure. It’s not a sign of weakness in power dynamics – it’s a strength!
  • Answer what you’re being asked – that strengthens your standing
  • Provide context where needed
  • Make suggestions that can help improve performance, and give reasons why you think this will
  • Understand possible differences in cultural and gender communication

How do you achieve the best in power dynamics when you write?

The best power dynamics are based on responsibility for what communications are sent.

It’s the goal here. If everyone knows and identifies with the values, understands the goals, feels valued - and incentivised to contribute to success, then everyone plays a crucial role in the team – and the balance of power in written communications becomes spot on.

Ironically though, just at a time when managers are identifying that the human touch is needed in today’s communication, we are getting a new conundrum to deal with. It’s becoming apparent that with the rapid growth of AI in the workplace, the ‘human element’ will increasingly be simulated and programmed in.

And if we rarely get to communicate with a real person at the receiving end of our messages and our messages are misunderstood, then the power dynamics are going to shift again, in new ways we’ll need to assess!

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