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Leaders Don’t Type Angry – How to avoid email disasters. June 24, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Once I sent an angry email to Veggie Tales. Yes, the wonderful cartoon guys who enchant children with bible stories told by talking vegetables. I hope that some sort of glitch caused that email to never arrive. I suspect, however, that Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber would love to give me a piece of their mind.

The fast pace world of email and text is here and it will not be going away any time soon. Decisions, arguments, and accusations fly real-time, 24/7, across the globe. How does a leader remain effective in a world where split second decisions are locked in computer systems forever?

If you want to have effective, disaster free emails, three main things are required:
1. Email Structure: Should be brief and reviewed.
2. Email Delivery: Leave out Humor and arguments. Deliver bad news personally.
3. Crisis Emails: Need to be reported early and clearly.

Email Structure:
Make Emails what they are. Emails are Memo’s not letters. That means that emails should be short and to the point.
• Try to use simple words if possible. I once sent an email to my staff complaining that we were ignorant of a certain process. There was an uproar as people objected to me calling them stupid. If I’d said I was concerned because people didn’t know the process, it would have been just as effective and would have missed the mess.

• Avoid abbreviations unless the memo is for internal use only. People may not know your alphabet soup.

• Always spell check your emails. It’s a single click and nothing says sloppy like an obvious misspelling in an email.

• Always re-read your emails. Re-reading your emails can point out grammar errors and word drops that your busy fingers missed while you were typing.

• Questions to senior leaders – Keep them extra short.
The more senior the leader, the shorter your emails need to be. When I was younger, I often needed to request information from a Senior Vice President. This principal was made very clear. I could predict response time fairly accurately to be 1 week for every 2 sentences of the email. If the email ever exceeded 6 sentences, the email was lost in the abyss and was never returned.

• Information emails to senior leaders – Layering.
To provide digestible information to senior leaders use information layering. Keep your initial analysis very brief 2-4 sentences. Reserve 2 sentences to explain that deeper dives into the analysis are provided further down in the email. Then provide a bunch of space between the initial message and the deeper analysis. Managers triage their email, and an email with a lot of text will often get saved for later analysis. This is when it vanishes into the email abyss.

Email Delivery: Keep Emails from becoming professional embarrassments.

• Do not email someone who doesn’t know you personally or professionally. Get introduced first unless the issue is critical or you are soliciting. Emails from unknowns are easier to misinterpret and are often misdirected.

• No humor or arguments in emails.

o Emails lack emotional clarity. More than 90% of communication is verbal or tonal. All of this is lacking in an email. Thus an email intending gest can be taken as an insult. An argument intended to be logical and analytical can be taken as angry.
o They last forever. Anything poorly stated is there forever.
o People tend to attach the worst possible emotion to emails. I’ve known at least 2 co-workers I think are best classified as “robots”, no emotion. None-the-less, I have heard numerous complaints about emails from these two that were everything from harsh to sarcastic. In every case, divorced from the wrongly placed emotion, the emails were fine.

• For bad news always pick up the phone.
o Most “bad news” items are complex. Calling gives the receiver a chance to clarify questions with you before they escalate or make an uninformed decision.
o Symbolically sending an email when something bad happens means one of 3 things.
I am too busy to call you. (Translated: Do not approach me for clarification before acting, you cannot reach me anyway. This is a great way to increase you escalations to senior management.)
I’m afraid to tell you in person. (Translated: I’m a wimp who either doesn’t have the authority to help or is afraid you will beat me up.)
I cannot reach you. This is a legitimate reason to email. Your email should also mention why you did not call.
o Always recap the bad news phone call with an email. Now that you have short circuited many of the problems above, document what was said.

Crisis Emails:Act appropriately with Crisis emails

• Report early. Colin Powell remarks “if you ask yourself should I call someone, the answer is generally yes and 5 minutes ago.” The rule is the same for email. I understand the hesitancy; we want to keep noise down with our superiors. If your boss gets blindsided, however, it’s going to be far worse.

Describe an email that you wish you had back or had sent earlier, and how you could have handled it better.
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