Let’s Earn Respect

Bill Hackos, PhD
Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.
www.comtech-serv.com

I enjoyed Vesa Purho’s insightful article in the July issue of the eNewsletter and his subsequent post to the Best Practices listserv. Vesa extended the idea of Hygiene first developed by Frederick Herzberg1 in his landmark article in the Harvard Business Review(HBR) in 1968. Herzberg, writing about motivation, suggested that certain environmental conditions must be met to motivate people, such as salary, benefits, working conditions, even bonuses and other incentives. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for motivation. Herzberg refers to these environmental conditions as “hygiene.” In addition, people must have fulfilling, challenging jobs in order to be truly motivated.

Vesa extended “hygiene” to include the areas of good grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as formatting of written material. We can usually understand what we read even if it has spelling and punctuation errors, poor grammar, and poor formatting. However, the quality of our reading experience requires a reasonable level of “hygiene.” In extreme cases, the lack of acceptable hygiene can make the text unreadable, just as lack of a sufficient salary can make a challenging, fulfilling job unacceptable.

I would like to take the next step.

I read a lot of whining in emails from fellow writers about not getting enough respect. We are usually vague about who doesn’t give us respect. After all, we are expert spellers, competent grammarians, unrivaled formatters, and unexcelled in punctuation. We know we deserve respect. Why don’t we get it?

We are excellent in hygiene. Is that all we do? Think of other hygiene specialists: maids, bank tellers, street sweepers, and politicians. These people perform vital functions that we expect to get done but are not otherwise particularly important to us. They get little respect. We respect architects, financial analysts, traffic engineers, and statesmen because they perform functions that are not just vital, but also important to us. The same is true of hardware and software engineers.

Why don’t we get respect from hardware and software engineers? Although they understand that writing hygiene is vital, it’s not important to them. To get respect we must provide a service that is important! We must provide a service that isn’t only hygiene. Sometimes writers think a strong technical understanding of the product or products they document will get them respect. The engineers know this is vital but they couldn’t care less about writers’ technical knowledge. It’s not important to them. It’s also hygiene.

The solution to this problem is that writers must provide services above and beyond hygiene. A good understanding of user needs might be a good start because no one else in the company may be focusing on the user. Knowledge about competitor’s products and documentation will also help. Keeping up on technical, management, or information-development innovation might be valuable. Do you know XML or SGML well? What about content management, records management, and knowledge management?

To earn respect in the today’s world we must be more than technical writers.

1Herzberg’s article, “One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees” has been reprinted most recently in the January 2003 issue of HBR. It’s available as product number 388x. To order call 1-800-988-0886 or go tohttp://explore.hbr.org.