My supervisor has pointed out to me that I tend to take language very literally, and it's impeding my performance at my job. Help me rewire my brain!
June 21, 2012 7:21 AM   Subscribe

My supervisor has pointed out to me that I tend to take language very literally, and it's impeding my performance at my job. Help me rewire my brain!

I work for a nonprofit as a grant writer and started working with a new supervisor at the end of last year. In the six months that we've been working together, he's pointed out to me more than once that I tend to take requests or instructions very literally and at face value. For example, if a grant question asks for information about our program's impact, I tend to respond with very concrete results about what we do. My supervisor is looking for me to think more creatively - in this case, he wanted me to add information about how what we do impacts not only our participants, but also the community at large, workforce development, etc.

I've never had a supervisor or anyone else point this out to me before, but it makes sense; I'm a very strict rule follower and am very much the kind of person to stay "inside the lines."

How do I rewire my brain so I am able to think more creatively and less literally? I'm concerned that this will become a bigger issue with my supervisor as time goes on, and don't want my work to suffer.
posted by anotheraccount to Human Relations (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you need a step between "getting assigned a thing" and "presenting results" where you and your supervisor sit down with your ideas and he tells you that maybe you should widen the scope of your results, or whatever. Hell, it doesn't even have to be a meeting. Once you get the assignment and figure out what you're going to report on, shoot the supervisor a quick email: "Hey, I'm figuring the results will contain X, Y and Z." and they'll reply "Oh, make sure you get F and Q in there as well."
posted by griphus at 7:28 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, once you get closer with this supervisor, you'll learn his rhythms and expectations a bit more so when they give you a new assignment, you'll have the experience of knowing what they want to know and how they want to see it.
posted by griphus at 7:32 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


When your supervisor says that he wants you to describe impacts on the larger community, I suspect he is looking for you to tie program activities not just to immediate results/benefits but to your organizational mission and vision, the change the organization hopes to see in the world as a result of having existed.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 7:33 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can you get examples of grants he thinks are good? That could be a way for you to understand what is within the parameters of a question. Also, if you could talk to someone who gives out grants, to understand what they're looking for, then you may be better able to look past the words that are written and write a response that matches the intent.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:41 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Great advice on how to interact with your supervisor, but you may also want to just test yourself. When people ask for things, try to expand well beyond the limits of what you think they're asking for. Go as wild and wacky as you can, without limiting yourself to the "right" answer, since this is just an internal exercise.

So for "impact," you could say to the community, to the world at large, etc., but also riff on the word "impact," maybe. "If this grant were to hit someone on the head at 55MPH, the impact would surely kill them.

It sounds dumb, but by removing limitations on dumb or silly constraints, you may find that your ideas open up quite a bit and you'll be able to take things a bit less literally.
posted by xingcat at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think looking at examples of successful grants would be very helpful for you. When figuring out how to spend grant money I get stuck at the brainstorming phase, while my colleagues are able to come up with tons more ideas. It's not because there's something wrong with how I think, it's that they have written, won, and reviewed many many more grants than I have, so they have seen many more money-spending ideas, and have a better idea generally what the scope of the grant should be.

When you've seen how other grants describe their wider, less-easily-quantified impacts, you'll be able to analogize to your own program, and you'll naturally add these wider impacts to your writing-a-grant checklist.
posted by BrashTech at 7:49 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be quite difficult to rewire your brain away from a propensity to 'take language literally'. (Believe me -- I'm married to someone who once in good faith, when asked to change the sheets, changed the sheets but not the pillowcases.) Luckily that doesn't seem to be an accurate description of the problem here.

Instead maybe think of it this way: you're trying to shoehorn into the grant application as many reasons as possible why your program is awesome. START with the laundry list of awesomenesses, and then read through the grant application looking for where they could fit.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:53 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your new boss sounds like a terrific mentor.

First of all, acknowledge that you are a very linear, literal thinker. Ask your supervisor for ideas and suggestions. Now that you've been told, are you having issues with thinking of these things, or has it opened your eyes and are you connecting the dots yourself?

If all you need is for someone to point this stuff out, then great! You're halfway there. If it's pointed out to you, but you still don't understand, then you might want to look around for a seminar in more creative thinking.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


You need to fundamentally understand that grant writing is the art of story telling.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:58 AM on June 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Hey, I'm not a writer at all (I majored in computer science), but I tend to get writing formal requests, justifications and grants all the time. My secret is to always ask for an example, or I contact the requester and ask for a better explaination. I ALWAYS do this, everytime I have to write something. This way, if someone questions my work, I can justify my writing by saying, "Well, I was told to do it this way."

This has worked so well that my team members think I'm a some magnificent writer. I don't like second guessing things, and I hate it when people ask for vague things like "what is your program's impact." Personally, I rather ask someone for help than guess on my own. Besides, I always got the impression that most people who write up any kind of instructions know that they are doing a half-ass job at it, so they don't mind going the extra distance to provide a better explanation when asked.
posted by nikkorizz at 8:05 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you took language that literally, you wouldn't have used the phrase "rewire my brain" because brains don't have wires, it would be extremely dangerous to tamper with the wiring if they did, and there's only so much help a group of internet strangers could possibly give you to perform this task remotely.

I would stop looking at this as so much of a failing in you, since your new supervisor is the first person to pick up on this. I would start seeing it as an opportunity to learn something you don't already know or do.

The best thing would be to ask your supervisor to show you examples of impact statements he thinks are good, and then, to start learning, do an imaginary redraft of one of your past impact statements using the wording of the example statement as a template. That's a very literal way to do it, so it should suit you.
posted by tel3path at 8:07 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm a very strict rule follower and am very much the kind of person to stay "inside the lines."

I'm like this in some ways and I think it helps to work with it rather than trying to fight it. Instead of trying to break the rules that you've established for yourself, find out what the "real rules" are. Read examples of grants written by others (as mentioned above a few times) and read books/websites/blogs about grant-writing (I'm assuming these exist) and ask your supervisor what other sorts of things they'd like you to include. These new, broader parameters will then become your rules.

(Note: I don't write grants but I do write other things that can have very formulaic elements to them, and that I often wish were more formulaic so I could be sure to get them right. Reading examples and how-to's has helped me expand my notions of what's "allowed" in this type of writing, and every time I learn another "Oh, I can do that?!" lesson, it goes into the set of "rules" and helps a lot.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I would take your boss's suggestions as well as the ones made above before making any move, but if those strategies don't work for you, you sound like you might make a good technical writer. Keep in mind, though, that even as a tech writer you will have to anticipate your readers' needs (often without much actual user data), so creative thinking would help you there as well.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2012


Your question itself is a sign of the problem. You are trying to solve it literally. A literal response to a problem is a sign that you are not epathizing with the asker. The reason the question is asked is not for the answer but for something in a wider context and you want to take on that same context. E.g. is you are changing the sheets, it's not just because the sheets on the bed need to be different than the ones on it. If you are responding to a question about the program's impact, the asker wants to understand that what you are doing is effective because they don't want to give money to something that doesn't work.

So when asked to do something, stop and think, what is the real goal of the person asking and what is my goal in answering.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Use your imagination to think about the real, underlying goals of your audiences. Are they just trying to increase the quantity of vegetables students eat, or is the end goal better attentiveness in the classroom? Wait, the real goal is a society in which people are more educated and make better choices in general.

Also imagine questions that might be prompted by what you write. Great, so you got 30 tons of frozen vegetables into the school cafeteria system for the city. What would your readers ask about that? Maybe, "How much was wasted?" "Did the kids eat it?" "Was this frozen corn or potatoes, or were there leafy greens involved?" "How many tons were served in previous years?" "Is the supply sustainable, or was it the product of a one-time funding push?" "Did this make school lunch too expensive for low-income students?" "Were there different consumption patterns in different types of schools?" -- for a grant application, maybe change these from past tense to future tense.

Imagination as a serious writing and discussion tool is, I think, underappreciated, but crucial.
posted by amtho at 8:11 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think learning from example, as others have suggested, might be the best way to solve the immediate problem re: grantwriting.

For the larger issue, let me recommend the work of Edward de Bono, specifically Serious Creativity. De Bono's "lateral thinking" strategies can be really helpful to us linear-minded folks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:22 AM on June 21, 2012


You need to fundamentally understand that grant writing is the art of story telling.

This. Who is your audience? What are they interested in? Assume that it is a given that you meet all the formal grant criteria (as do all the other applicants!!!). Think about what other questions somebody might ask? What else may be relevant, not to you but to your audience. What almost philosophical considerations may people bring to this that may guide their decision making?

Remember essay questions at school - the ones where you could have answered 'yes/no' if it wasn't for the fact that the teacher added the word 'discuss' to the brief. You're answering yes/no when it is implied and expected that you 'discuss', and probably not on a purely factual level but on a level that is softer and values based, consistent with the values your audience brings to its decision making.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:24 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


To add to the storytelling thread:

Here's Ira Glass on how to tell a story

I just re-watched this again this morning. I have found his advice extremely helpful for my writing at work. (large scale IT proposals, presentations and that sort of thing)

I think it might help you too!
posted by roboton666 at 8:29 AM on June 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


I tend to be very literal when answering questions. One thing that helps is to add a level of meta-analysis into your answering process: Think not about "what is the answer to this question", but "Why is this person asking this question? What are they really asking, and what is their motivation?"
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:30 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm going to come down hard on the OP's side. I think the OP knows how to write a good grant and make good reports, but is making it a different type of "good" than their supervisor wants. If no one else has noticed you linguistic problems it's probably not a problem with you.

Sounds like the supervisor wants more salesmanship in the reports to make the grantmakers, this isn't really an issue of your language abilities, you've just discovered a new culture of interacting with grantmakers. Many directors will focus on making their reports to grantmakers emphasize broad and far reaching effects. Sometimes, supervisors and directors want it to be that grantmakers are not necessarily even seeing the empirical results of their funding but rather they are seeing a *perspective* that emphasizes a sort of narrative of the agency as socially-transformative agent. In essence, you superrvisor wants to "sell" the agency, like a salesman, so actual events are polished and re-envisioned to be more important and wide ranging.

There is a delicate balance between putting forward a compelling narrative for grantmakers to keep them involved and spinning a project that is existing at the minimum level and making a report that has little to do with reality. I think that the relationship between funders and agencies can be a good level of accountability and maybe even supervision but too frequently it's a salesman/mark relationship. You should be prepared to do both (some grantmakers, I think, prefer the show to the studies).

But you have to deal with this anyway. So here's a few tips to do a good job playing this game:

● Tell a story. Put all the facts in a narrative. Behind every statistic there is a story of a person doing something in three acts. First act describes the person, second act they person needs help, in the third act your agency does it's thing. Throw in one of those and your boss will probably be delighted. Walk the grantmakers through a positive outcome.

● Think of every possible outcome behind the facts. Everything has ripples of effects, think of a butterfly flapping it's wings and causing a hurricane. Your project is that butterfly. Start close to your project and think about the positive effects of elements of the project. Be creative, small things do have big effects.

● Everything has positive aspects. Find them. Really, literally every single aspects of your program, from increased participation to decreased participation should be emphasized/reframed by what was learned or gained. Some use of jargon and buzzwords might be appropriate. For example, if group membership has dropped, that becomes developing a core leadership group.

● STRATEGY STRATEGY STRATEGY It isn't even necessary to have something like a written 5-year plan or visionary directors as long as you focus on long-term thinking and how your agency/projects fits into overall social change. Put a lot of context and show both the supervisor and grantmakers how all of the above (narratives, people, effects, and polished turds) fit into an even larger narrative of sweeping societal change and themes of progress.

So, in conclusion, use more sparkles and less statistics and I think your supervisor will be pleased.
posted by fuq at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Your supervisor is being a bit harsh, and you're taking it the wrong way, but she's basically correct. Did she call you a "linear thinker", too, perhaps with a bit of condescension in her voice?

Your brain doesn't need to be "re-wired." What you actually need to do is "tell a story" in your grant proposals. You're creating a narrative about the context and importance of the work, and then pointing out how the specific thing you're getting funding for contributes to that goal by improving the specific metrics you're looking to improve.
posted by deanc at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2012


What you may find frustrating, though, is that your entire grant proposal has a lot of lofty words about the big ideas and world changing meaning of what you're doing, when the actual thing your are doing with the money is a very small-bore project that solves or works on a very small issue with specific metrics. But that's what funders get excited about. It's even better if you can present your work in progress in such a way that it shows how it fits into the greater context.

This isn't about you being "too literal minded" or needing to re-wire your brain. It's about marketing your work and your organization's mission. So look at it from that perspective.
posted by deanc at 8:53 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This may sound counterintuitive, but bear with me:

I'm a really good outside-the-box thinker and reading xingcat's response makes me think about the fact that at least one of the ways I accomplish this is by taking things very literally, at face value.

For example, a science teacher I know was once trying to help students prepare for a mousetrap-powered car competition. When he asked for my input, I asked if I could read the rules for the competition, which said something to the effect of "the winner is the car that travels the farthest." I pointed out that it didn't say which direction and said, "What about up?" I started thinking about solutions which might utilize that strategy and he said, "But they don't mean that." He shut off a bunch of possible avenues by assuming a bunch of constraints that weren't specified. I'm not saying I had any workable ideas that capitalized on the "up" possibility, and even if I did, I'm not saying the judges for the competition wouldn't disqualify our entry for failing to adhere to the spirit of the rules. But that's not my point.

I guess I would argue that your problem is not that you take things too literally, but that you make a lot of very straightforward assumptions about things. If your supervisor were to say "Run this up the flagpole and see if it flies," you wouldn't literally do that. You're not Amelia Bedelia.

What I'm saying is: There are lots of ways to improve at what you're asking about, but at least one of those ways is to do exactly what you say you already do. Turn your "weakness" into your strength. Take things very literally. That should help turn at least some fresh ideas loose.
posted by etc. at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


In this example, impact evaluation is a whole other world that a grantwriter wouldn't necessarily have experience in. Do you have staff that specialise in this at your organisation? This isn't a matter of writing a good story, but in analysing evidence and research from the field. You need to get this information from them. Do you work with others to prepare these grants?

(says someone who's been writing up reports on community impact all week...)
posted by wingless_angel at 9:08 AM on June 21, 2012


I tend to be very literal when answering questions. One thing that helps is to add a level of meta-analysis into your answering process: Think not about "what is the answer to this question", but "Why is this person asking this question? What are they really asking, and what is their motivation?"

This is good, to a point. But the problem with it is that it can lead to making worse assumptions about what the goal of the project is. You end up in conversations like this:

What's the weather going to be like tomorrow?
You better wear a jacket.
Huh?
You don't want to catch pneumonia!
But I just wanted to know what the weather is going to do.
A windbreaker should be fine.
Is it going to rain?
You have an umbrella in your golf bag, don't you?
What does my golf bag have to do with the weather?
You play golf on Fridays!
I just wanted to know what the weather was going to be like.
You'll be fine.

I would suggest that you agree with your boss, and agree to meet in the middle- that the boss should be able to tell you a little more about the context of the piece you are working on, and you will try to work on expanding your scope when planning a project.
posted by gjc at 9:13 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Others have emphasized the story part. That is key. Recognize that everything we do is a story we tell ourselves, and tell others. One story is "I'm very literal.". There are plenty of alternative stories for any situation, some far more useful for helping direct decisions and actions tha others.

I suspect, and this is entirely speculation, that your supervisor has a story about the granting agencies or institutions you apply to, that they don't always ask for what they really want in a grant application. They may ask for lots of facts and figures, when what they want is a description of how you do good things in the world and some sort of basis to back up that you can really do what you say. All the facts and figures they ask for may be the right way to back that up, or they may not. This doesn't mean you disregard what they asked for, but it might've best to spend a lion's share of your effort answering what they want instead.

I know this more from proposal writing where often the project ultimately deemed most responsive by the client is one that figured out what they really needed and answered that, instead of the proposal that clearly, succinctly and effectively went through the application checklist.
posted by meinvt at 9:23 AM on June 21, 2012


I am also a very concrete, literal, within-the-lines person. I struggled with something similar during my time in the nonprofit sector.

For me, the key to working successfully in that area was not to step "outside the lines" but rather to better understand what those lines actually were. You see, the impact on the community is a direct answer to the question that was asked. When you touch on those kinds of points, you're not breaking any rules. You're being comprehensive!
posted by cranberry_nut at 9:25 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


For example, if a grant question asks for information about our program's impact, I tend to respond with very concrete results about what we do. My supervisor is looking for me to think more creatively - in this case, he wanted me to add information about how what we do impacts not only our participants, but also the community at large, workforce development, etc.

I've sort of been dealing with a similar issue, only I'm the one trying to get people to write more creatively! I am in the development department of an organization with many local branch offices, and those guys usually write their own grant reports and send them to us for approval.

The problem, as it seems to me, is that they are so hyper-focused on Doing The Work that they really do have a hard time taking a step back and asking 'ok, so we did the work. So what?' They are skilled professionals, but when you spend two years obsessively managing every detail of a specific program, it's easy to forget about anything but the immediate task at hand.

What I try to do, as an outsider to their programs, is to take a step back from the work and try to think about why we did it in the first place. Why did we go to this country? Why did they ask for our help? Why did this funder think it was worth giving us all this money? It wasn't (for example) so that we could train twelve gender activists on reparations law- that was how we achieved our goal, but the actual GOAL was to empower women's groups in their country to advocate for themselves so that the government would listen to their concerns. The project was just our method of doing that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:27 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I write a lot of grants, and your supervisor's advice/feedback seems damn strange. The first rule of grant writing (at least for me) is to figure out what the mandate of the grant-offering organization or the grant itself is, and tie all the results in the proposal to that.

Everything else is extraneous and noise - always give people what they want. Maybe these are different grants, but in my experience results should always be measurable (and you should always under-promise and over-deliver).

If you get too creative, measuring and reporting on success gets to be too onerous and adds significant unbudgeted overhead to the process, as well as a high element of risk.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks all. I've been a grant writer for more than five years and this is the first time this has come up, so I don't think it has to do directly with my grant writing skills. This issue has come up outside of the context of grant writing, as well. For example, we have a very detailed strategic plan. One of the indicators is for X number of donors to renew. I pulled a report from our database of every single donor from last year and told him whether or not they renewed. But many of them had very good reasons for not renewing, or I had no direct responsibility for them, or they were incorrectly coded, etc. In my original report, my renewal rate was rather low, but once we spoke about it and he pointed out all of the donors that probably should not count toward my rate, it went up dramatically. While I knew that my original rate likely wasn't the best representation of my work, I never would have thought to pull out the outliers because the indicator was for all donors.

My boss has not been condescending at all about this; he's just pointed out these instances to me (I think!) in order to help me understand how I operate and help me.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:38 AM on June 21, 2012


For example, we have a very detailed strategic plan. One of the indicators is for X number of donors to renew. I pulled a report from our database of every single donor from last year and told him whether or not they renewed. But many of them had very good reasons for not renewing, or I had no direct responsibility for them, or they were incorrectly coded, etc. In my original report, my renewal rate was rather low, but once we spoke about it and he pointed out all of the donors that probably should not count toward my rate, it went up dramatically. While I knew that my original rate likely wasn't the best representation of my work, I never would have thought to pull out the outliers because the indicator was for all donors.

To be generous about it, your supervisor is encouraging you to market yourself better in the face of hard times. One of Jack Welch's innovations at GE was to judge the performance of executives in various business sectors not in absolute terms (whether they grew or shrank and how much) but how they performed relative to the rest of the sector. So executives who saw slow-growth of their division in a sector that was growing rapidly got dinged, while an executive whose division remained steady while the overall sector contracted were rewarded.

But once again, this is about "telling a story" to the board of directors of your organization.
posted by deanc at 10:29 AM on June 21, 2012


Are you familiar with outcome-based evaluation? I think this philosophical approach is the kind of thing your boss is asking you to aim for. Numbers and figures and charts and facts are the raw data; but that's only a starting point. What's important is not the data but the difference it makes.

I echo the poster who says to ask yourself: what is the larger goal? What difference am I trying to show here?

For instance, in the donor example, you knew that the larger goal is to get a certain percentage of donors to renew. But in your analysis, you forgot about the larger goal and got lost in counting donors. That doesn't tell you how many of them are going to renew. But once you were able to ask yourself "of these donors, how many are going to renew based on what I know about them?" you were able to sort out the dead-end names because they won't help you reach that goal, no matter what. You were then operating at the level of aiming for the larger goal, the larger difference made. You took the first step, counting, but not the next step: what does this say about how close we are to the goal?

So ask: what's the larger goal? What difference are we trying to make here?
posted by Miko at 1:35 PM on June 21, 2012


For me, the idea of "telling a story" is not specific enough because of HOW linearly I think. For me, as a fellow linear thinker, brain rewiring has come from breaking down tasks into steps and systems that I practice using, adapt, and edit as I put them to use. Then, eventually, I go through the system intuitively--and it brings my mode of thinking closer to that of a creative thinker...I just had to get there differently.

It helps me even more if I can visually conceptualize the system. I make a series of steps or a map of the different general categories I will always have to cover when thinking in a certain context.

For example, when writing about social issues, this was the system I created and have since internalized:

1. Make concentric circles that include:
individual
family
extended family
community
society
world
2. Think about what affects each circle:
e.g. individual: self conception, physical ability, career, educaiton, familial support system, friend support system, socioeconomic status, culture of family, culture of friends, culture of community...
e.g. family: relationship btwn parents, relationship btwn children, relationship btwn parents and children, parenting style, relationship between personalities, societal, social, personal causes of individual affect and system of relationships....
3. See what ideas, previously separated by circles, are common to all or many pieces of the system.
4. Decide which are most important/help me make my argument/most pertinent to topic.
5. Talk about each common thread as the relationship presents itself in my system.

In terms of grant writing, there must be the basic format/system you learned in school and then the "extra" parts of that system that are helpful to address/that your supervisor wants you to address.

e.g:
1. System of grant: write grants as you always have and make note of the format and system of thought.
2. Make a circle around the grant
e.g. Community can be broken down into political, social, socioeconomic, economic, etc aspects. Organize these aspects into system. Address most important pieces--how will your grant affect them.
(If you're even MORE linear like I am, it may be helpful to make note of WHO affects each aspect of the community and how and then their relationships to each other.)

In any case, my strategy is:
1. Make a system.
2. Keep it systematically flexible and open to feedback.
3. Discuss it with people around you and practice using it.
4. You'll end up internalizing it and making it a part of your mode of thought.
5. Your brain will be rewired.

It's like applied behavior analysis: they break down skills then teach parts of them until the whole thing is internalized and the client doesn't have to think about it anymore.
posted by polenta at 8:42 AM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


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