Too Quick On The Draw?
American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines
November 01, 2003
If you've regretted clicking Send, you know e-mail's pitfalls. But do you know how to avoid them?
Remember old-fashioned conflict, in which Goliaths at the top of business organizations duked it out with one another mano a mano in mortal pursuit of some advantage: perhaps greater income, power, or prestige - or possibly all three? While such combat has not gone the way of the loincloth and club, a new, more insidious form of combat is waged in today's organizations. Say hello to e-mail as the new theater of conflict.
Consider this: Two-thirds of the 130 million adult workers in the United States send three billion e-mail messages daily. That's 21 messages per inbox every day, which is fertile territory for a lot of mischief.
And that's because e-mail is not just about speed and efficiency and information; it's also about unscreened emotions, opinions untempered by body language, and thoughts - some hostile and provocative - unrefined by reflection. Electronic communication makes it easy to say your piece and get out of Dodge before the bullets start flying.
"If a conflict-averse person knows there is going to be an issue, using e-mail feels a lot easier than having to sit down and engage in a conflict, because e-mail is a one-way tool," says Lois Huggins, vice president of organizational development and diversity for Sara Lee. "You don't have to listen to the response."
Rules of Engagement
Here's how e-mail can go wrong. At a major pharmaceutical firm, two division presidents had polar-opposite styles - let's call them Ms. Analytic and Mr. Turbo-Emotions. True to her name, Ms. Analytic made decisions carefully and methodically. Mr. Turbo-Emotions preferred a gut-feel, shoot-from-the-hip approach. The two managers continually butted heads, especially around budget time, when they had to compete for scarce resources.
Their preferred venue for conflict? E-mail. It became an electronic boxing ring, where they could spar without resolving their underlying differences. At one point, Ms. Analytic e-mailed her colleague with a detailed plan to justify her getting the lion's share of the company's resources. This triggered Mr. Turbo-Emotions, who fired back: "Your plan is heavy on numbers and light on imagination."
Before long, the adversaries were cc-ing their respective bosses, which only escalated the stakes. By the time they'd started including dozens of others in the cc column, their planning and budgeting had become a blood sport.
Clearly, without rules negotiating conflict via computer screen is a handicapped expedition - like trying to find your way in an unfamiliar town with no street signs. It leads to frustration and anger. But 10 common-sense principles can make e-mail a zone for authentic discourse, rather than a hot spot for conflict. (By the way, these same principles can help you get your way - er, your message across - at home and with friends, too.)
Use the right medium for the message. E-mail is a very effective tool for one-way communication, but it doesn't lend itself to interaction. E-mail is best used when you just want to share information and don't need a response.
In some organizations, e-mail is used only for communication, not for decision-making. Decisions are made in person, on the phone, or during videoconferences only. Decisions in progress are not to be discussed in e-mails, period. It's also unacceptable to use e-mail to raise a concern or problem, or to negotiate. The reason, as one CFO put it: "Nine times out of 10, a conflict is more easily resolved by face time than by dueling via e-mail for weeks on end" the way Ms. Analytic and Mr. Turbo-Emotions did.
Read with your brain, not just your eyes. Resist the temptation to reply to an e-mail with advice, judgmental remarks, or disinterest. Instead, ask yourself, Is this message clear? You may have to read between the lines. For example, if the message relates to a problem, ask yourself whether the sender is trying to determine the cause. Does the sender want information to help in searching for the cause? Or are you being asked to take or recommend corrective action to solve the problem?
Next, step back and take a wide-angle view of the message. Ask what underlying feelings are conveyed or implied. Do you detect frustration, anger, confusion? If so, are these feelings directed at you? Now you are better positioned to respond.
Practice the Golden Rule. When you write a message, imagine yourself in front of the recipient's computer screen. Ask yourself how you'd react. Would the message be clear? Would you know what action, if any, you were asked to take? How would you feel?
Putting herself in her adversary's place, Ms. Analytic might have realized that an electronic lecture about detailed planning would offend Mr. Turbo-Emotions. In other words, think before you send.
Respect confidentiality. A breach here is a trust-buster. Never, ever pass along a confidential e-mail. It's also important to understand that there's no privacy on the Internet: Anything and everything can be discovered with the right tools in the wrong hands. All sensitive and confidential information should be delivered face to face.
Know when - and when not - to carbon copy. Every organization should have protocols that address the cc issue. When in doubt, reach agreement with those involved before you cc and hit Send. Likewise, cc people on your e-mail only when it is absolutely necessary to keep them informed. Otherwise, conflict becomes a spectator sport, as was the case with the two warring divisional presidents.
Don't retain a rescuer. Don't circulate an e-mail you received to a third party and ask that individual to join the response. That's precisely what Ms. Analytic and Mr. Turbo-Emotions did by attempting to draw their respective bosses into the game - and it only made each of the adversaries more defensive. Instead, deal one on one unless you get permission from the sender to broaden involvement.
Stroke the recipient. Telemarketing coaches advise their clients to "make sure your voice has a smile." Similarly, executives would be better served if they looked for opportunities to congratulate or thank their colleagues.
And why not use e-mail to bury the hatchet? Strained relationships are often eased when one of the parties e-mails to thank or congratulate their former adversary: "Thanks so much for the work you did on the marketing plan; you and your team were tremendously helpful to us." Or "Congratulations! I heard you got the XYZ account." Suppose Mr. Turbo-Emotions had swallowed his pride and e-mailed his adversary to compliment her thoughtful approach to planning. Their conflict might have deflated like a punctured balloon.
Get to know your e-mail correspondents. Matching a face with a name makes it easier to infuse your electronic correspondence with a friendly, more personal tone. If you routinely correspond with vendors, people on other shifts, employees of other departments or divisions, why not introduce yourself in person? If you're making a trip to see the corporate H.R. folks, stop in to say hello to the purchasing agent you've only "spoken" to via computer. Or, if you have to work overtime one night, walk into the plant and introduce yourself to the night supervisor.
When in doubt, don't. Suspend your response, especially when you're angry or upset. Write the message, hit Save, and then send it to your own e-mail address. Wait 24 hours. Now, open and reread the message. If it passes the content-and-feelings litmus test, go ahead and send it.
Pack a parachute. If only Ms. Analytic or Mr. Turbo-Emotions had clicked Close instead of Reply and taken the elevator down a floor to knock on a door instead. Days worth of hostility and indecision would have been avoided. Don't make the same mistake. You can bail out of e-mail, especially when you sense an undertow of strong emotions. Before the situation deteriorates - before misunderstandings escalate and harsh messages are exchanged - that's the time to suggest getting together by telephone or in person.