Surviving E-mail: Road Rage on the Information Superhighway
A few years ago, a participant in a business writing class shared the following e-mail exchange:
One day, an office worker we’ll call Sally received the following message from Phil:
"Where are those reports I asked for? They’re late and I need them immediately. I expect them by 3:00 p.m. today."
Feeling miffed, Sally responded (and cc’d her boss):
"The reports aren’t ready yet. As I told you the other day, you can’t keep dumping these things on us at the last minute and expect instant turn-around. Our department is overwhelmed with these late requests and we do the best we can. I suggest that in the future you think first. If we get a proper request, you’ll get your precious reports in three days, which is our normal response time."
Phil was flabbergasted when he received this response. How, he wondered, could his perfectly normal, if somewhat hastily written, e-mail have provoked such an emotional response? Becoming quite angry, he fired off the following (with cc’s to his boss, Sally’s boss and the director both bosses reported to):
"What’s happening here? I made a simple request for reports you have to produce every month. You know I always need these by the 4th, so I shouldn’t have to wade through a bunch of paperwork to get them. I thought we agreed to that at last month’s staff meeting. I’m going to see if we can get some understanding on these deadlines. (You didn’t seem so overworked yesterday in the cafeteria when I saw you going back for a refill on your coffee. Sorry to interrupt your leisure time with a little work.)"
At this point the director called a meeting of the two managers and their battling subordinates. The result? A lot of airing of old grievances, but basically an agreement that the incident in question had been "blown all out of proportion."
Have you ever received an e-mail that caused you to react in a surprisingly negative way? How did you respond? While the example above may not happen daily in most organizations, such incidents occur often enough to create the loss of countless hours of productivity while feelings are smoothed over and explanations given. Messages that seem
innocent to the sender often become the opening skirmish of an e-mail war that can escalate rapidly to include whole departments.
Sources of the Problem
From its beginnings in the last century as a convenient way to share data files, e-mail has become a significant mode of communication both within and between organizations. For many harried professionals, it is the preferred method because it’s quick and doesn’t depend on the parties having to coordinate already complicated schedules. However, this seeming boon to communications is often the source of many problems.
While the sources are not fully understood, three key ones have emerged:
1. Lack of knowledge of how people respond to even slightly negative messages.
According to Nigel Nicholson, professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, writing in an article in the Harvard Business Review (How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?, HBR, July-August 1998), people have a natural tendency to "hear bad news first and loudest." In other words, we often look for bad news even if the sender did not intend it. A message that appears slightly challenging or ironic to the sender often strikes the recipient as hostile or sarcastic.
2. Use of e-mail to replace other, often more effective, ways of communicating. E-mail (along with voice-mail) often supplants higher-touch forms of communication such as the face to face meeting. (See The Human Moment at Work by Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist in Concord, Massachusetts and an instructor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business Review, January-February 1999).
3. Employees’ lack of understanding of the staying power of the message (even on a computer screen). Many people assume that an e-mail message ceases to exist if they delete it from their electronic mailboxes. They’re wrong. In addition to remaining in the sender’s or recipient’s possession, copies of the e-mail may also exist in various
backup caches throughout the network. By using more effective strategies for writing and reading e-mail, business people can reduce
the misunderstandings and increase the productivity it was designed to engender.
Strategies for Writing E-mail
The first step is to determine whether e-mail is the best method for communicating. If there is a chance for misunderstanding, a face-to-face meeting may be the better choice. On the other hand, if a meeting isn’t possible and the message is strictly personal, a voice mail has less chance of remaining permanently within the corporate system.
Once you decide e-mail is the right choice, the following tips will reduce e-mail wars:
- Watch your tone. What seems brisk and businesslike to you may set off a reaction in the receiver. To check for a possibly hostile tone, print the e-mail and read it aloud before sending it. Should you receive an e-mail which irritates you, avoid responding in kind.
- When you’re emotional, wait to respond. Type the message if you must, but leave the recipient line blank. That way, the message can’t be sent accidentally.
- Send copies only to those who really need to receive a copy. Don’t use bcc’s (blind courtesy copies) unless absolutely necessary.
- Avoid all capitals—they’re like shouting and make an innocuous message sound harsh.
- Ask permission to forward e-mail. Be able to trust those to whom you forward mail.
Other tips for more effective e-mail:
- Use meaningful subject lines. A subject line such as "FYI: Project Update" is more likely to be deleted than one that says, "Shortages found in audit of KC office."
- Limit length of the e-mail. Most recipients read only one screen of information, so longer messages are less likely to be read. At the same time, resist the temptation to attach lengthy files when the reader needs only a few key points.
- Avoid all lower case. It is difficult to tell where one sentence ends and another begins.
- Use signature lines that include name, office number or building code, and phone number to make it easier to respond.
- Include only one message in each e-mail. It shortens the e-mail and lessens the chance that the reader will miss a second message farther down.
- Use short paragrapsh and list questions on separate lines to make responding simpler.
- Observe copyright restrictions. Avoid scanning copyrighted works such as cartoons or magazine articles and sending them to co-workers unless you have the author’s or publication’s permission.
E-mail Triage: Strategies for Reading E-mail
By using a conscious strategy for reading e-mail, you’ll become better at sending it as well.
- Quickly scan subject lines to decide what to read first. An e-mail with a title "Free Beer" may be read the first time its sender uses it, but later attempts with the same subject may be ineffective.
- Look at the sender. You’ll probably want to read a message from your boss, or her boss, before one from a co-worker who frequently sends jokes from the Internet.
- Look for multiple messages from the same sender with the same or similar subject lines, then read the last one first. If it says, "Ignore all previous messages," you can delete the previous messages.
- Try to take action with each message as you read it. The point is to reduce the number of messages in your in-basket. Either respond to the sender, delete the message, forward it, or file it.
- Put legitimate messages in folders even if you don’t read them now. For example, you may not be involved in the project on redesigning cubicles, but your boss could assign you to the team next week. You would want to get up to date very quickly.
Like most new technologies, e-mail presents a mixed blessing. Because messages can be sent and received at any time from many remote places, it lets people add flexibility to their busy schedules. By exercising a little care, people can avoid the pitfalls and realize the productivity gains it was intended to enhance.
Jane Ranshaw is president of Jane Ranshaw & Associates, Inc. She conducts workshops on business cases and proposals, listening, business writing, internal consulting, and managing emotions at work. An Adjunct Professor at DePaul University, she teaches graduate courses on enterprise resource planning, consulting, and change management in the School of Computer and Digital Media. She also presents communication seminars for the American Management Association.
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