E-Mail as a Lethal Weapon

E-mail has eight characteristics that sow the seeds of conflict and discourage people from dealing with it in a healthy , open manner:

  1. E-mail encourages disengagement. We know that most people shy away from confrontation. E-mail gives them a perfect out. Lois Huggins, vice president of organization development and diversity for Sara Lee Corporation, explains why this is so:

    Conflict makes people feel so uncomfortable generally , and sending e- mails back and forth doesn't feel like engaging. 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. You don't have to listen to the response. Also, it's a lot harder to look a person in the eye and say what's on your mind. There are a lot of physiological responses that occur in a face-to-face interaction. You might begin to perspire; you might blush; your facial expression might give away how you feel; your heartbeat might go up; your pulse rate might increase. Many of these reactions can be seen by others, and a lot of people don't want to be that vulnerable.

E-mail lends itself to dealing in data points and deadlines, and it provides an easy escape for those unwilling to penetrate the emotional subtext of an issue. The art of face-to-face communication ”and it is an art ”takes a back seat to the terse presentation of bare facts, leaving recipients of e-mail messages feeling as though they are merely being given marching orders or are being manipulated, rather than receiving helpful suggestions or critiques. This is especially true when the sender is the person's immediate supervisor.

In one such case, the vice president for Southeast Asian operations of a midsize manufacturing organization sent an e-mail message to one of his employees in Thailand. The e-mail expressed disappointment in the results of an advertising campaign that the Thai manager had launched and suggested that an analysis be conducted to determine the cause of the failure. The Thai manager's response was tinged with sarcasm. It suggested, in effect, that before pointing an accusing finger else-where, the vice president should conduct a similar analysis in his own backyard, Singapore, where the campaign had been even less successful.

The vice president's e-mail reply was a polite and noncommittal: "Thank you for your reply." The company paid a price for this disengagement. It never did discover why the advertising campaign went awry, nor was an examination ever conducted of the emotional dissonance that lay below the surface of the Thai manager's response.

We know an executive who rides the wings of e-mail detachment to an extreme. In his attempt to dodge engagement, he responds to e-mail messages in a "you said/my response" format. The "you said" refrain merely restates the sender's message, while the "my response" offers a literal reply, usually in bulleted format. Although this executive gets points for seeking clarity and precision, his colleagues bristle at the robotic-like responses they receive from him.

  1. E-mail enables people to avoid accountability. If you are responsible for making a decision or implementing a plan, soliciting ideas and suggestions from your colleagues, in person, can be a tedious chore. E-mail makes it so much easier: Type out the request once, call up a preexisting list of recipients, and hit the send button. It does not matter that many of the people on the list are neither knowledgeable about nor involved in the issue at hand. Since it is so easy to include them, why not do it?

Gerard Kells, vice president of human resources for Johnson & Johnson's medical devices and diagnostics group , refers to this indiscriminate solicitation of input as "using e-mail as a chat room" and says that he "immediately shuts down" when someone tries to involve him in this way:

Somebody sends out an e-mail to me and 27 other people and says, "I'd appreciate your comments on the following." I'm sitting here, drafting my response, when my e-mail pings. Then it pings a second time, and a third, and a fourth. I can't process all those responses. I can't incorporate answers to them into my response. So I just sit back and see what everyone else has to say. And I suspect that the person who's ultimately responsible for the decision is now as confused as I am.

Spreading out accountability in this way often delays important decisions, says Peter Wentworth, vice president of global human resources for Pfizer Consumer Health Care:

E-mail allows you to redirect accountability for decisions to somebody else. To diffuse accountability. It's one thing for a decision maker to send an e-mail to others asking for a direct answer to a question or for additional information on which to make the decision. But all too often these e-mails are sent out asking for opinions and input into the decision-making process. Decisionsthatshouldbemadeconsultativelyare suddenly being made by consensus ”when they are made at all.

  1. E-mail encourages subterfuge. Curiously, although e-mail usually encourages a rapid response, it can also prolong response time. We have seen more than a few executives agonize over an e-mail response, editing and reediting it, secretly circulating the e-mail or intended response to colleagues ”often in breach of confidentiality ”for feedback, guidance, and perhaps even a little old-fashioned character assassination. As one executive complained, many of the e-mails that he receives "come with a tail."

Julia Nenke, former human resources director for Foxtel, recalls one instance in which a colleague tried to "put one over on her" electronically :

A manager sent me an e-mail in which he made a case for a salary increase for one of his staff. Normally, performance is reviewed once a year and raises given at the time of the review. No-where in the e-mail did the manager include the information that the employee had been reviewed and received an increase six months prior. This fact would probably have come out if we had discussed the case in person, but because it wasn't mentioned in the message I wasn't aware of it, and I approved the increase.

Such sins of omission are common in wired organizations, as are attempts to sow electronic seeds of dissension. One executive from the health care industry calls messages that are sent to discredit others "heat-seeking missiles," which people use as weapons against one another. He gave us an example of how lethal they can be. At nearly 5 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, one of his managing directors received a call from the field saying that his stock of a critical chemical for conducting assays was depleted. The only way that testing could continue over the weekend was for employees to contact customers who had stock and " borrow " it for those who had run out. The managing director was furious. Instead of picking up the telephone and calling the vice president of operations, who was the responsible party, he went over that individual's head ”and over the head of the president of operations as well. He sent an e-mail to the chair and the international president, saying that this was the ninth or tenth time in the last six months that they had run out of stock and asking why no one was "minding the store."

Of course, neither of these two executives had any power to fix the problem. But, feeling duty-bound to respond, they forwarded the managing director's message to several other executives, adding comments such as, "I think the managing director has been incredibly patient," and "Operations has obviously fallen down on the job." The president of operations, who had not been informed of the problem ”and whose vice president still knew nothing about it ”was one of the recipients of the forwarded messages. When she learned of the managing director's missile strike, she became so upset that she nearly resigned.

E-mail makes it easy to put forward hidden agendas , such as the need to sing one's own praises or make another person look bad, explains one U.S. executive. She has often received "CYA" e-mails: messages that are sent when something has gone wrong, and one person wants to spread the word that he or she is not to blame. "I only made a recommendation; Rebecca made the final decision," or "I tried to tell Marvin he was making a mistake" are typical CYA messages that are sent out, ostensibly, to explain but, in reality, to blame.

  1. E-mail fosters electronic triangulation. The following example speaks volumes about how easy it is to fall into the electronic triangulation trap. The director of marketing of a financial-services firm worked with an outside consultant on a project to conduct telephone interviews with key customers. The aim was to determine customer-perceived value.

To kick off the project, the division's general manager circulated an e-mail message to his team leaders and to the senior sales reps who reported to them, asking the reps to contact their largest accounts to set up the interviews.

One salesman , with a reputation for backroom shenanigans, e-mailed his team leader telling him to keep the marketing director away from his accounts. He preferred the outside consultant, ostensibly because the consultant was a more seasoned interviewer. In fact, the marketing director was highly regarded throughout the company for his ability to ask insightful questions.

Without much reflection, the team leader forwarded the sales rep's e-mail to the marketing director, who, understandably, became irritated. His relationship with the offending sales rep carried a great deal of baggage, and he was tempted to reply to the sales rep with both barrels, but he decided to lay low. He politely e-mailed the sales rep, with a blind e-copy to the general manager, innocently asking, "Why the concern?" The marketing director knew he would not get an honest response, but that did not matter: His real objective was to draw the general manager into the fray. Classic triangulation!

Sure enough, the sales rep's e-mail response was warily noncommittal, whereupon the marketing director forwarded it to the general manager with a note saying that this was simply another case of the sales rep's evasiveness and asking the general manager to reprimand the troublemaker. The general manager was eager to accommodate the marketing director because of his own history of unresolved conflict with the sales rep, and he fired off an electronic slap on the wrist.

But triangulation spawns many moves. The sales rep was undeterred by the general manager's e-mail. Rather than cease and desist, he sent a for-your-eyes-only e-mail to the outside consultant, whom he had worked with at a previous employer. The sales rep electronically stroked the consultant for his superior capabilities and implored him to conduct the interviews with his clients .

So, what do you think happened ? You guessed it! The outside consultant clicked the forward button and sent the sales rep's message to the marketing director. Compound triangulation!

So it went. The sales rep's clients were never interviewed; the company missed a chance to gather valuable input from several key clients; and the sales rep and marketing director continued to glower at one another in virtual and real space.

  1. Electronic communication popularizes a new sport: tag-team e-mail. With the availability of e-mail, enlisting supporters for one's own point of view has become easier than ever. Consider this: The executive team of an international consulting firm met to discuss the company's positioning platform. After an initial discussion on the subject, the outside consultant to the team was asked to e-mail an initial draft of the statement to team members , who, in turn , were to make revisions and forward them electronically to the consultant.

One team member, the managing director of the company's European business, suddenly had a flash of inspiration: Why not ask his marketing director to comment on the positioning statement to ensure local "fit"? Her revisions, it turned out, were significant, and the managing director sent her comments, along with his own, to the outside consultant, with electronic copies forwarded to his fellow team members.

Not to be outdone, the managing director of Australia-Asia proceeded to follow suit and involve his marketing director. Next , the head of the Latin American operation jumped on the involvement bandwagon and tagged his marketing manager for comment.

Things grew worse . The directors of several staff departments were also asked for comments by the company's executive vice president. Soon, e-mails were whizzing back and forth in almost every permutation: top-team members to one another, staff to staff, staff to top team ”you name it, and it was being sent. Each handoff led to more comments, edits, and revisions.

Tempers frayed. The marketing director in Europe was accused by her peers of grandstanding. A top-team member, disgusted by the free-for-all, decided to go off-line and partner with several of his peers to come up with a new draft of the statement. This incensed the outside consultant and angered those senior executives who were excluded. Weeks later, the organization finally came to its senses when the CEO halted the tag-teaming by calling for a face-to-face meeting of his senior executives to review the broken process and set new ground rules.

Susan Fullman, corporate vice president and director of customer solutions and support for Motorola, describes tag-teaming as "exponential dysfunction":

Where you could have included one or two people, now you are including four people on the e-mail, and now you get four times the dysfunction. On several occasions I've seen dozens of people copied , and most of them didn't know anything about the subject that was being discussed. In such cases, I try to stop the dysfunction in its tracks by setting up a conference call with the primary players and dealing with the issue then and there.

Fullman is not the only executive who has seen this exponential dysfunction firsthand. Julia Nenke of Foxtel describes a situation in which a vice president of finance sent an e-mail message to his counterparts in marketing, sales, and programming requesting information on which to base pricing decisions for the upcoming year. His original message articulated several assumptions related to pricing, each of which was open to interpretation. When the three vice presidents received the message, they immediately forwarded it to their team members, asking them to comment. Because the information was presented in written form from people in authority, the reaction of these people was that it should be taken as gospel, and suddenly thirty-odd people were commenting on these assumptions as though they were fact.

  1. E-mail engenders bravado. There may be some deep psychological connection between e-mail and road rage. We certainly do not plan to develop this conceit further, except to say that both automobiles and computers appear to encourage risk taking and aggression.

In the case of e-mail, the remoteness of the communication process may explain why "scud e-mails," as one executive termed them, are launched with great frequency. Nonassertive people often refrain from expressing their point of view because they are afraid of other people's reactions. Without anyone else present to challenge or to criticize their ideas, they find it much easier to make a statement and sometimes go too far in the other direction. Freed of their usual inhibitions, they may voice their opinions too forcefully or include caustic remarks about other people in their e-mail messages. And since already-aggressive people become even more aggressive when surrounded by several thousand pounds of sheet metal, an individual who pulls no punches in person may see no reason to temper his or her remote remarks.

One executive relates how, in his company, electronic communication escalated the disagreement between two colleagues into open warfare . Two divisional presidents with polar- opposite styles simply could not get along, especially at annual planning time, when competition for resources typically devolved into a pitched battle. This was a case of Ms. Analytic versus Mr. Turbo-Emotions. Ms. Analytic was a careful, methodical decision maker. Her counterpart preferred a gut-feeling, shoot-from-the-hip approach. E-mail proved to be the perfect medium for these two adversaries to spar with one another without resolving their underlying differences. Each was aware of the other's Achilles' heel, and each know how to take dead aim at it. The ability to engage in open warfare without ever needing to come face-to-face emboldened both. And the cc's that the combatants attached to each of their electronic missiles ensured that they had an audience. Planning and budgeting became a blood sport.

  1. E-mails cannot be taken back. Who among us has not hammered out a stiff response to a pointed e-mail message from a colleague and pushed the send button, only to develop an immediate case of remorse? Michael Eisner, chair and CEO of Walt Disney Company, reflected on the gaping pitfalls of e-communication in a speech to students at the University of Southern California:

    I have noticed lately that the intensity of emotions inside our competitive company is higher than usual. I am convinced this is because of e-mail. I learned early in the hard paper world of the 1970s that when I was annoyed with someone, I should write a memo, then put the memo in my desk drawer and leave it there until the next day. About 99 percent of the time, in the morning, either my anger had passed or I realized that my writing was of insufficient precision to save me from being fired. I then picked up the phone to talk things out with the other person, or I saw the person face-to-face. With e-mail, our impulse is not to file and save, but to click and send. [6]

Clicking and sending, without pausing to consider the consequences, can cause serious damage. One executive recalled the time when she was e-mailing highly sensitive information to a colleague in another department. The information included past performance ratings of several incumbents, suggestions for appropriate next positions for them, and other highly confidential personnel data. When she went to the address box, instead of clicking on her colleague's name, she inadvertently clicked on the address above it, which was the entire division's mailbox. "My blood pressure," she says, "went sky high. I called the IT department, and fortunately it was an antiquated mailbox, so no unintended readers got hold of the information. There were no dire consequences from my mistake, but ever since I have been very, very careful whenever sending out anything confidential."

  1. E-mail neutralizes key conflict-management tools and technologies. In any conversation, the way things are said is equally important as the words that are spoken, and what is not said is often more important than either. Face-to-face communication allows the speaker and listener to connect on both the intellectual and physical planes. Real-time active listening provides executives with the opportunity to decode and feed back both the content and emotion of the messages they receive.

E-mail, by its very nature, makes the utilization of these tools nearly impossible . How can an executive possibly perceive the subtext of a conversation without seeing the facial expressions and gestures of his or her counterpart? In the black-and-white glare of computer-generated characters , the lyrics may come across loud and clear, but the melody of how the message is spoken and felt is completely lost.

Studies have determined that e-mail has caused executives' listening skills to languish, by creating a physical and psychological chasm between them and their colleagues. These studies also suggest that while users of e-mail have more relationships and contact with people inside and outside their organizations, these contacts are not as strong, nor are they as committed. [7]

[6] Michael Eisner, "E-Communication," Executive Excellence , vol. 17, no. 11, November 2000, p. 6.

[7] Goldhaber, op cit.

When Goliaths Clash. Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
ISBN: 0615198686
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 99

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