Stop Typing and Pick Up the Phone!


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Having spent the better part of the last decade managing globally diverse and distributed teams, I’ve had a lion’s share of team interaction issues and miscommunication. Often times these issues and misunderstandings are initially simple and can be based in things as benign as the written English comprehension level of the recipient (even, or especially, in the Continental US) or as complex as misuse, misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what I have come to consider trigger words – or anything in between.

The irony is that the new corporate “telephone game” is email. Your comments can be taken completely out of context, pieces that serve the recipient’s needs or agendas forwarded without your knowledge, and implications or messages you never intended or would even have thought of when you wrote the email amplified until they are completely inaccurate and often rather poisonous.

One has to remember that more often than not email makes us more bold – many people will readily type out and send a response that they would never have the honesty or courage to say face to face. Often we are more conscientious of social graces and people’s feelings in person or on the phone. There is a false sense of safety and impersonality in email. It’s often like people believe they are only responding to characters on a screen or page than to another human being.

There are many, many trigger words for people. Some trigger immediate defensiveness, others, merely raised hackles. Generally, overgeneralization that is specific – words like “always”, “never” and “constantly” – are absolute and unless linked to a profoundly positive remark leave no room for any reaction other than defensiveness. Words like “should” and “must” or phrases like “need to” can imply directives, and in today’s matrixed workplace, with the already confusing and overlapping roles and responsibilities, they can send people over the edge, often for no apparent reason from the perspective of the sender.

One thing it has taken me years of stepping on electronic bags of flaming dung to learn (I’m a slow learner) is to be very conscious of saying anything and everything “about” another person in email. When someone asks for email feedback on another person, immediately consider the fact that even though you and the requestor might agree, your words may be used in lieu of the requestor’s, often due (being brutally honest here) to their cowardice to give the feedback themselves. I’ve seen that scenario play out time and time again. If you have to give informal feedback over email stick to facts, dates, and specific, documented events. Assume that it will be forwarded to the person in question and/or their boss and that they will begin the telephone game with the text of your message. If you choose to not be extremely careful with your word choices and specifics, be ready for fingers pointing, whining, pointless escalations and numerous other generally useless and highly volatile interactions.

The bottom line is that the email-a-phone game, once it gets started by someone with hurt feelings, a point to prove, an, um, ass to cover or any other reason, is highly and inevitably toxic. As an email user, you have to constantly remember that as soon as you click send, you have lost control of the context, any unintended implied meaning and just about every other factor of the text contained in your message.

How does one avoid the waste of cycles, the inevitable and often completely unintentional damage to workplace relationships and other ripples?

If you need to send a note “about” another person or if you’re the recipient of an email that gets your ire up:

1.) Step away from the computer.

2.) Go for a short walk, maybe write (that means grab a pen and paper) down some notes that will help you stay collected and on track, and

3.) Pick up the phone and call the person. Going old school is hip and cool.

Gus Strand
Service Matters
I'm a lifelong service practitioner and customer evangelist. I've spent the last 20 years in a career in corporate L&D and credit my service focus to a grandfather that had an "old school" small town hardware store. You know the type - worn wood floors, china and Osterizers in the front window, a pipe threader out back and everything - including hot coffee - in between. I've a DNA-level service and learning focus with experience in companies that defined service in ways that other companies strive for: Wal-Mart in Sam's day, Coldwater Creek, Harry & David, Dell and more.


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