by guest Pat Cunneen (Director of Lighthouse Organisational Consultants)
This article does not suggest that e-mails are themselves problematic; rather, it is the inappropriate use of them that causes the difficulty. The article explores some of the difficulties in the improper use of e-mails and offers some suggestions about how to minimise their impact on effective teamwork. There is nothing altogether new in cataloguing some of these problems. Many of these difficulties are self-evident. The purpose of the article is to remind managers of the potential difficulties using e-mail and recommends that they review their e-mail practices and behaviours from time to time.
I have seen situations both in business and in voluntary organisation committees where e-mail messages caused serious fractures in relationships or reinforced earlier rifts. These fractures can be caused by content, “tone” of the message or indeed the fact that others are copied. Such e-mails certainly sub-optimised the sense of teamwork among the members.
This article will not dwell on the benefits and advantages of e-mail. The vast majority of people in business and other careers well understand the speed and cost advantages of e-mail. It is an excellent communications medium for the transmission of news and information; sending messages “for your information (FYI)”; sending documents as attachments; collaborating on developing a document; checking availability for meetings; letting people know that you are away from the office; etc., etc. The list is endless.
There are, however, many potential difficulties with the inappropriate use of e-mails. These difficulties are many and include:
Probably the most counterproductive use of e-mail is in continuous debate backwards and forwards between the protagonists on both side of an argument. It is often the case that this succession of messages is simply the exchange of opinions; an opportunity to pontificate endlessly. Left to their own devices, successive e-mails are completely open-ended. This incessant exchange of messages has no capacity to conclude debate or offer a process to resolve conflict. Far from resolving issues and disputes, endless e-mails have the capacity to polarize positions and further entrench people in their positions; moving in never ending circles. These ‘open-ended loops’ greatly diminish and duck a collective accountability to the team goal of focus and commitment on results and actually getting the job done.
Differences of opinion on important matters need to be resolved quickly and team members need to be sufficiently committed and mutually accountable to “call time-out” and seek to have such differences properly and promptly surfaced and a process instituted to resolve the issue and move forward as efficiently as possible.
Endless “pinging” of e-mails backwards and forwards is not just a symptom of poor teamwork. It’s also a symptom of a leadership vacuum. Leaders need to confront such unproductive practices of endless debate and create an environment and processes where differing views can be aired and where possible, compromise achieved. In the absence of such compromise, resort to other timely and transparent decision-making processes.
If you think it is difficult for protagonists on both sides of an argument to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion to their debate on their own, imagine how much more difficult it becomes once there’s an audience invited in to observe the endless debate; the never-ending tennis match. It is one thing to acknowledge to a colleague that s/he is right and you’re wrong in a private e-mail discourse; it is entirely another matter to do so when there is an audience; often an audience of more senior and influential individuals. At a human level, inappropriate CC lists can seriously undermine trust between team members.
Ironically, a counter difficulty may arise in an organisation where everybody copies everybody else. In such an organisation, team members may refrain from constructive feedback by e-mail because so many others are copied and they do not wish to create conflict with a wider audience watching in.
There is another issue with CC lists and that is the matter of individual productivity. CC lists ‘increase and multiply’ the number of e-mails arriving in each of our in-boxes every day. There are just so many messages that we all copied on every day which clogs our in-box and which we had no need to receive. This unproductive practice can be further exacerbated exponentially when recipients reply to the message, copying all recipients of the original message! I don’t believe that its bad manners to reply and request that you be removed from the CC list and question whether or not others need to be copied on the issue or not. Good team behaviour values the time demands on colleagues and actively questions who really needs to be copied.
A significant disadvantage of e-mails is that it lacks other supporting communications dimensions such as tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. As a consequence, some e-mails messages are liable to be misunderstood or misinterpreted, sometimes creating an impression of criticism which was not necessarily intended.
Intended or not, criticism is much more difficult to accept when it is in the written word. A negative reaction is likely to be further exacerbated when there is a “dreaded CC list” audience. Effective team behaviour calls for early intervention to mediate and not remain passive and allow the situation to fester. Without any intervention, there will be endless messages, each protagonist hot in pursuit of having the last word.
Recently a colleague showed me an e-mail which started off with some mild criticism but as the rather lengthy e-mail continued, the sense of criticism increased suggesting that the more the author wrote, the angrier they were getting, eventually building into a rant. Writing such a message may have certain therapeutic benefits but hardly improves the sense of teamwork between the parties. There is an old piece of advice that recommends that you count up to 10 before replying to an affront or criticism. That old advice is as important today as it ever was when replying to e-mails. When responding to difficult situations draft your reply and file to ‘draft’ then review in the cold light of day the following morning before clicking the ‘send’ button.
For reasons referred to earlier in this article, the most effective communication process is a face-to-face meeting. People will point to busy work schedules and geographic separation as defences for not going to meet a colleague and having a face-to-face meeting and relying on e-mail instead.
For sure there are times when we’re very busy and it’s easier to send out an e-mail. The problem however, is that the e-mail may not be convincing or accepted by the recipient and what follows may be a long and tedious exchange of e-mails back and forth, resulting in more time being consumed than the initial investment in time in meeting face-to-face in the first place.
People may also avoid face-to-face meetings because of the fear of creating conflict and having a row over an issue. Good team behaviour calls for honest and assertive interaction between the members.
E-mail has the potential of sometimes allowing us to become somewhat lazy in our communications. I will be forever convinced that the best mechanism by far for resolving issues is to get off one’s backside and go and meet your colleague, or at least pick up the phone and call them in the event of geographic distance. The international telecoms company BT used to have an advertisement with the message “Its good to talk”. It may have been just an advert but the message will always be wise counsel.
by guest Pat Cunneen (Director of Lighthouse Organisational Consultants)
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