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I am so disappointed with HBR today.  It is one of the sites that I always believed had high quality content – but, that changed a bit today, when a tweet in my feed took me to the blog post of Kyle Wiens on why he would never hire anyone with poor grammar.

As a disclaimer, about 10 years ago, I would have totally sided with Kyle on this. Sloppy grammar is simply sloppy.  But, various experiences in my career have allowed me to mature a bit more than that.  And I can now definitely differentiate among lack of attention to detail as a fundamental nature, lack of attention to detail in secondary tasks and just sloppy language.  And they are not the same thing!

In his post, Kyle writes about how good programming relates to good writing, as one example of how good language skills apply to all disciplines.  There is no doubt that good writing reflects clarity of thought and the ability to pay attention to detail – however, the converse is not true, as experience might tell us.  Certainly not in all disciplines.  Consider all those people whose native language is not English.  Are we supposed to penalize all those researchers for being incapable of expressing excruciating amounts of detail in the English language?

I have come across many people (some very senior folks at extremely successful organizations) with sloppy grammar in the course of my career in technology.  Capitalization errors.  Not knowing the correct number of spaces after a comma or a fullstop.  Not knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its”.  Incorrectly using “affects” when it should be “effects” or vice-versa.  And so on.  Sometimes I think it’s even fashionable to write bad grammar – I can’t seem to get by a few days without running into something on TechCrunch that is grammatically so incorrect that it makes me cringe!  I have actually analyzed this a fair bit – I’m cynical and critical myself and this has certainly not escaped my observations.  I’ve seen how, with certain people, this trait also reflects a muddled up state of the mind, where there does exist a correlation between sloppy language and lack of clarity in thinking overall.  Usually, these people turn out to be native English speakers.  In some cases, these people have overlapping thoughts that get in the way of each other – such people can confuse themselves and their audience and they are often fighting several thoughts that aren’t taken to completion.  This would lead to the hypothesis that Kyle is right in his post.

However, the important thing is to also look at several other people that are unable to write grammatically correct language, but exhibit an amazing degree of clarity in thought and cognitive ability that sets them apart.  More often than not, these people are non native speakers of English, but not as a rule.  As someone who has done extensive amount of hiring and can pride myself on arguably hiring some of the most amazing talent in the field of technology, I can now tell how to look for the people that can pay attention to detail.  In the end, I believe that is really what the HBR post is trying to get at – although I’m not sure that Kyle realizes that.

There are two classes of these people – ones that pay attention to detail always and ones that pay attention to detail where it matters.  The former category is safe – these are people who will make good employees.  The latter category is tricky – how do you know upfront if they will pay attention to detail where it matters to you and your organization rather than only where it matters to them?  Filtering this is a skill you acquire and can’t easily be taught.  The important reality is that these are the people that will take your organization to the next level.  Knowing where to pay attention to detail and what one should let go of is hard – but, that is what defines great leadership!  The ability to spot those people takes talent too – and great leadership starts there!

Pay attention to people’s language skills – but, connect it to their cognitive skills in the area of importance to you.  Remember that you are after attention to detail… for the right set of things.