By: Alyson Krueger
Tami Reiss knew she had a problem. As CEO of Cyrus Innovation, a New York City-based consultancy that helps companies of all shapes and sizes build better products, she knew she was a powerful, capable woman. She led teams, made bold decisions, and pushed the envelope of what was possible in the tech world.
Yet, she also knew that sometimes her communication didn’t reflect that. When she was worried about being too forward, she would be overly apologetic in emails, sometimes starting them with the undermining phrase “I’m so sorry.” When she was feeling less powerful, she would say “I’m just checking in,” as if she needed to justify her communication.
“We put phrases in there with the intention of saying, ‘I want the other person to know I’m not a horrible, pushy person,’” she said. “What people hear is, ‘This person talking to me or writing to me isn’t very confident.’”
Reiss understood she was hardly alone. She was part of a group named League for Extraordinary Woman, made of female CEOs, managers, and entrepreneurs who support one another, and they would discuss the issue. Sometimes they undermined themselves on email intentionally; other times, subconsciously. Regardless, it had to stop quickly.
So Reiss, along with engineers at her company, created a plugin for Gmail named Just Not Sorry, that automatically underlines distracting or demeaning phrases before an email is sent out. It also includes a short explanation given by an expert of why these phrases – Just, I’m sorry, I think, or I’m no expert, are just a few – could take away from your message. The plugin is barely two weeks old, and it’s already been installed 90,000 in 140 countries.
“We definitely struck a nerve,” said Reiss. “This is a way to give people a leg up.”
The team first chose which words to flag by reading articles from people like Tara Sophia Mohr, who writes about how to amplify women’s voices, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and leader in the fields of talent management. During alpha testing, users suggested other phrases with which they struggled. And they have plans to keep expanding the offering, said Steve Brudz, lead consultant at Cyrus Innovation. “Now that the plugin is out, we’ve asked anyone who wants to contribute a phrase to include a reference to an article that explains why people should be mindful when using that phrase.”
The plugin is open sourced, so others can take in and run with it, making it available on platforms like Outlook. “We figured we would start somewhere, and the crowd would tell us where we need to go,” said Reiss. “You have to start somewhere!”
Of course, there are a few critics. “The only people who don’t like it haven’t used it, and they are mad at us because they think we are policing women’s languages,” said Reiss. She points out that it’s simply an optional tool for those who want help and hardly dictatorial.
Surprisingly, since it was aimed at female, many of the products’ greatest supporters are men. They are writing in saying they, too, struggle with their language and are using the plugin to fix that. One user, who happens to be a perspective client of Cyrus Innovation, said he’s been corrected 17 times about the phrase “I think” since he started using the plugin.
Users in the Beta phrase say they have become more aware of their verbal communications and texts as a result of having their emails screened. “The goal of the tool is that you use it for a few weeks, and then you don’t have to,” said Reiss. “It stops underlining things because you’ve improved your communication.”
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Originally Published: Forbes.com