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What caring about grammar tells us

I enjoyed last week’s blog by our guest blogger because it gave me a chance to revisit a topic that I always find interesting when working with leaders: that of our unconscious bias. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the topic of good grammar as a topic on its own, but as a child of the 1960s, my education in the UK was sadly lacking in the rigours of grammar because teachers no longer thought that structure was vital (they being of the hippy generation!).

Donna quoted the author of an HBR article as saying that ‘poor grammar is an indication of general attitude, learning ability and work performance’.  This statement caught my interest as if you break it down you will see that the author equates poor grammar with a number of reasons i.e he says x= w, y and z.

In participating in Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) he demonstrates his own biases. FAE is something we all do and is almost a normal feature of everyday human interaction (or ‘gossip’ if you want). When the conversation turns to ‘They are behaving that way because….’ it is usual that the words that follow indicate some cause. The cause is frequently a view rather than a fact and often points at a motivation or an attitude and often a negative one at that.

Social psychology gives lots of possible and highly academic reasons for this, but I’ve always thought that we do it because fundamentally we know that behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens for a reason. As a curious species who try to create order from the chaos of life around us, we have a strong need to pin things down as ‘facts’. Therefore the need to pin down the motivation of others to explain their behaviour is almost an automatic activity (‘I know, therefore I am no longer confused and frightened by the world outside of me’).

However in order to identify the source of the motivation our only frame of reference is ourselves. Who is the only person that may truly understand the reasons for their behaviour? It’s you. Everyone else is likely to be a mystery.

That frame of reference is a rich pool of values and beliefs. Let’s use the HBR quoted author to explore that:

He equates poor grammar with poor attitude and that seems to suggest that if grammar isn’t important to you then you aren’t trying hard enough, or lazy. So for him, grammar is of value. It may even be a measure of how he values himself (‘I spell therefore I am’). In either case, if he values something he will be attentive or biased towards it, and that means when he makes sense of the world around him (using those biases that bring him meaning) he may look to them as a way of bringing meaning to the behaviour of others.

What is interesting is how black and white those beliefs can be for us. For example, the quoted author also equates poor grammar to learning ability generally. Have you ever know anyone who was great at language but couldn’t grasp sciences? Would you equate their inability to grasp French syntax with a general inability to learn as a result? Well you would if you valued French language skills so highly, just as the author seems to with grammar. In that risk of valuing comes the risk also of missing the potential of others and of alienating those with different value structures and beliefs.

Our value structure helps us define ourself and our world but the bias that it brings with it may also bring risk and lost opportunity when we look at others. So watch out for FAE and your biases when working with others.


And now, as I’m renowned for missing typos and grammar (but funnily enough also have a great reputation for performance at work, contrary to the HBR author’s belief), I’m going to send this blog to someone to check before Donna sees it.


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