“Please respond ASAP on this issue.” “I just received this e-mail and I don’t know what it means!” “I get the feeling the person who wrote this is angry about something …”
E-mail, like a lot of great advances, is both a tremendous tool and a source of extreme annoyance. Recently I did a couple of workshops with a major University’s Athletic Department (you know who you are.) Over the course of those sessions it reminded me of the cross-section of issues that come with internal communication and, specifically, e-mail. Here’s a look at what we all learned in that room that day.
Please Respond: The simplest way to avoid starting a string of problems is to RESPOND! How hard do you have to think to recall the last time a lack of response caused a very difficult domino effect? First you’re wondering, “Did they get it?” Then, “Is there a problem with them?” Then you go from being concerned to being annoyed. “Damn, they’re just ignoring me!” While it is the simplest of advice it is also the most important: Just respond, even if it is a single polite sentence that tells the sender you are swamped and will get back to them later this week. (Then, of course, actually get back to them!) It is about respect and responsibility and understanding the other person’s world and doing your small part in helping your colleagues get through their day.
Choose Your Words Carefully: Sure it’s “just an e-mail” but is also an electronic representation of you — and the people you work with — and your profession — and your sex — and your race — and on and on. Geez, all at once that little e-mail takes on greater importance. For the people in the Athletic Department, I asked them to put each of their messages to the “Headline Test.” What would this look like if it ended up in tomorrow morning’s newspaper — or in the hands of the blogger who is always looking for dirt — or the competition? Most of the time our messages don’t carry that much weight, but often when we are angry or frustrated or fed up we let the worst of it come through and that can have all kinds of unintended consequences.
Get Up and Talk: Especially in those difficult times, it just makes more sense to get up and talk to the person — pick up the phone — or even get on a plane if that’s what you have to do to have that talk face-to-face. One of the organizers of the workshop I was conducting reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s practice. If he was upset with someone he would write the angry letter, and then put it in the drawer. If he took it out a day or two later and still agreed with the tone, he’d send it. A lot of letters stayed in the drawer.
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