Is It “Just” a Problem for Women Employees and Execs?

I was just looking for something to write about this week, when I just happened upon this great column by Ellen Petry Leanse, originally posted on LinkedIn. Petry Leanse, a “business leader, entrepreneur, and Apple and Google alum,” noticed that her women colleagues used the word “just” much more than their male counterparts. The problem with “just,” as she sees it, is it connotes an apologetic tone: “I was just checking to see how that report was coming along,” “I just wanted to see if you would be at the meeting tomorrow,” or “I just needed an update on when you plan to turn in your marketing brief.”

I’m just a terrible offender of over-use of “just” myself, so I can hardly judge. I agree that it does connote an apologetic tone, as if the person who adds “just” to a request or question is sorry to be asking, or sorry to be bothering the person she is corresponding with. Use of “just” also functions to downplay whatever the speaker is saying: “I just wanted to mention a new product idea I had.” Think about how a confident person would say the same thing: “I have an idea for a new product I wanted to share.” Or even more confident: “I have a great idea for a new product.”

Think about the men and women who work in your organization. Who seems to use “just” more, or even without using a word like “just,” who tends to be more apologetic and more eager to downplay their words when communicating? I can think of a few male colleagues over the years. But far and away, I think Petry Leanse is right that women employees and executives are not as good as their male colleagues at speaking with confidence and gusto.

The inability to speak with confidence and authority can hold a person back by making others think their contribution is less important than that of their more confident peers, but there is a flip side to the use of “just.” In some ways, it may not be a bad thing because its use is often a conscious or unconscious attempt to avoid sounding arrogant, pushy, or authoritarian. It’s an attempt to make the inquiry or added point sound casual and breezy. In that respect, I know many (often male) colleagues who could use more “just” in their communications.

One of the more important soft skills in business that I’ve never noticed taught is how to express the desired tone in communication. My boss often rubs me the wrong way when he probably doesn’t intend to because I find his tone arrogant and condescending. He often sounds like he’s sending a formal letter to an incompetent underling, though that’s clearly not my position (and he knows it).

What kinds of business communication training does your organization make available to employees? Are there any modules or sessions on communicating the desired tone?

One exercise to try is to come up with three scenarios, and ask learners to write e-mails communicating the three messages. One scenario might be a point that came to mind right after a meeting ended, which the writer of the e-mail wants to communicate before she forgets; another might be a new idea for a product that the writer is excited to tell her boss about; and the third could be an e-mail about a typo or a minor piece of incorrect information on the company Website.

Everyone has their own take on how serious and dictatorial (if ever) you should be in e-mails to colleagues, but here’s how I see it:

The additional point the employee wants to communicate right after a meeting is over shouldn’t be downplayed with “Just wanted to mention something that just came to me.” It would be tempting to do that because of the discomfort or embarrassment of needing to communicate something that should have been remembered to be communicated during the meeting. But if the point is important enough to follow up on in an e-mail, then it shouldn’t be downplayed.

Of the three scenarios, the one that should be the most forceful and least apologetic is the e-mail meant to communicate a new product idea. Even if the e-mail is only being sent internally, rather than to a client or customer, you’re still in the position of needing to pitch, or sell, your idea, so that’s no time to be meek or humble. I definitely wouldn’t use “just,” or downplay it in any other way. The best approach would be: “Peter, I have a great idea for a new product…”

The last scenario, in which the employee needs to communicate a couple of minor errors on the Website, is the perfect time to use “just.” If it’s just a minor error, there’s no need to grandstand and come across as arrogant—as if you savor the opportunity to point out another colleague’s errors. That’s when just is just perfect: “Hi, Colleen, I just wanted to point out a couple of small errors I noticed on our homepage. They’re small errors, but I figured you’d want to know. Thanks!” And no need to “cc” the boss or manager when pointing out such minor errors in an attempt to score points at the expense of a colleague.

How do you instill the ability to communicate confidently, but without arrogance, and with the desired tone? What kinds of business communication training are most needed today?