Shortlink for Sharing:
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookShare on Reddit

The Problems With the Passive Voice

Posted by .

Your English teacher warned you not to use the “passive voice” when writing, but doing so is one of the easiest ways to improve productivity in your workplace. Changing language can change culture!

First, a quick refresher on passive voice from the UNC writing center.

A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject. The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses (more on that shortly).

Consider the following statement, which is common in offices across the world:

Please edit this report as soon as possible.

Although the sentence begins with the word “please,” it is obviously a command. If you’re the one saying it, you expect the work to be done immediately. If you’re the person hearing this request, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being given an order.

It might sound a little odd to question the value of direct requests at work. After all, shouldn’t we expect our jobs to contain specific responsibilities and assignments? Consider then rephrasing the same concept using language with the passive voice:

This report needs to be edited.

Using the grammatical approach your teacher recommended against should result in a weaker, less effective sentence. Yet, if you heard such a request from your boss it wouldn’t just seem passive. Instead, the comment would sound passive aggressive.

The manner by which we provide instructions affects how people feel about those instructions. What if we take the passive language and combine it with something informative and empowering? Consider this version of the same idea:

The client is really in a bind and I think we can win some big points if we edit this report today. Is this a task that interests you, and if so are you available to help out?

busy business consultant

© Flickr user Stephan Mazurov

Unlike the first two statements, the handful of extra words provides some context. There is now a rationale for the emergency as well as a benefit. The person asking demonstrates respect—both for the other person’s competencies and responsibilities. A “yes” answer is more meaningful and a response of  “no” is perfectly acceptable. The extra words don’t just take up a few more seconds, they help to transform the culture of work.

It’s not always possible to turn a command into a request, whether you employ the passive voice or another technique. Sometimes work just has to be done. But even so, you can empower your team members by showing them you recognize their value:

I’m sorry to interrupt your workflow, but I need you to stop what you’re doing and edit this report right away. Can you let me know what other project will slip as a result so we can plan accordingly?

If you have the right sort of people on your team, then they’re going to respond positively to a request like this. And if they legitimately don’t have the time to properly accomplish what you’re asking them to, then you’re probably better off finding someone else to take on the task.

Connect with your team. Improve productivity and satisfaction by changing the way you talk. Learn more by contacting our small business productivity consultants today!

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookShare on Reddit