Toward E-Conflict Rules of Engagement


As Michael Eisner claims, "E-mail's very virtues also make it dangerous ”it is instant, global, quick, and easy. It becomes easy to be rude, easy to use language incorrectly, easy to make stupid mistakes, easy to do irreparable harm." [8]

Electronic communication makes it easy to say your piece and "get out of Dodge" before the bullets start flying. These are the same reasons why e-communication is such a threat to successfully managing conflict.

Without clear protocols, negotiating conflict via computer screen is a handicapped expedition ”like trying to find your way around an unfamiliar town with no street signs. It is a journey that can easily lead to frustration and even anger. Yet, e-communication will be with us for a long time. By embracing the following ten steps, many executives have found that both their e-communication skills and their ability to use e-communication as a conflict-management tool have greatly improved:

  1. Use the right medium for the message. E-mail is an effective tool for one-way communication, but it does not lend itself to situations that require interactive communication. Lois Huggins, among others, has learned to use e-mail primarily as a way to disseminate information to numerous people. "When you just want to share information, and don't need a response," she says, "e-mail is the quickest, most efficient way to do it."

At Foxtel, says Julia Nenke, several protocols have been developed to prevent e-mail from being used inappropriately. Foxtel regards e-mail as a communication, not a decision-making vehicle. Team decisions are made interactively ”in person, on the telephone, or during videoconferences. Information relating to decisions that have yet to be made is not to be disseminated electronically . Executives are discouraged from soliciting input, engaging in discussions about alternatives, or putting forth their points of view in e- mails .

It is also unacceptable at Foxtel to use e-mail to either raise an issue of concern/conflict or to engage in negotiations. The reason is that face-to-face communication is three-dimensional. It embraces content, emotion, and both spoken and body language. The subtleties and nuances of conversation not only go a long way toward clarifying a point but can also make or break a negotiation that is conflict- related . Often, the expression on a person's face at the negotiating table will provide tell-tale clues to his or her willingness to compromise. It is tough to gain (or convey !) the same assurance from an electronically delivered statement of objectives, or similar negotiation platform. As one CFO explains: "Nine times out of ten a conflict is more easily resolved by face time than by playing dueling e-mails for weeks on end."

E-mail is vitally important in today's high-speed business climate, but more important is knowing when and when not to use it. When managing or attempting to resolve conflict, picking up the telephone can be more beneficial than merely clicking the send button.

  1. Substitute active-reading skills for active-listening skills.

  • Get a fix on the sender. Remember the matrix for framing strategies discussed in Chapter 5? If you receive a particularly sensitive e-mail, do not forget to position the sender on that matrix before attempting to respond. Ask yourself: "What has my experience with Marcia told me about how she relates to me? Is she a double- dealer , a foe, a member of the loyal opposition , or a partner?" Then, see what cues you can pick up from the e-mail that either reinforce your original estimation of Marcia or indicate that her position on the matrix has changed. If Marcia has always been a foe of yours, and her most recent e-mail indicates that she continues to take an adversarial stance, no electronic response is likely to resolve your differences. Your strategy needs to include voice-to-voice or, better yet, face-to-face communication.

  • Keep the "dirty dozen " out of your responses. Remember the dirty dozen responses described in Chapter 5 of sending solutions, evaluating, and withdrawing ? All these responses interfere with open , honest communication between speaker and listener, both in person and electronically. The same rules we outlined for their use in face-to-face communication apply to e-mail. Resist the temptation to reply to a person's message with advice, judgmental remarks, or disinterest. Instead, decode and feed back the message as you interpret it or ask for further clarification , using the following active-listening techniques:

    (a) Test your understanding of e-mail messages on two levels. One of the first principles of active listening is the importance of decoding not only the content of a message but also the emotion behind it. The recipient of an e-mail message needs to do the same. First, ask yourself: "Is the content of this message clear?"

    This can be a challenge. The vital subtext of an idea or directive, which can often only be perceived by tools such as active listening or strategic framing, can be lost entirely when the message is reduced to a matter of bytes and pixels. You may need to read between the lines. For example, if the e-mail message relates to a problem, ask yourself: "Is the sender trying to determine the cause? Does the sender want me to supply information to help in the search for the cause? Am I being asked to take or recommend corrective action to remove the cause of the problem?"

    Next, step back and take a wide-angle view of the message. Ask yourself, "What are the underlying feelings being conveyed or implied ? Do I detect frustration, anger, or confusion? If so, are these feelings being directed at me or at my area of responsibility?" Now you are better positioned to respond.

    (b) Feed the messages back to the sender for confirmation. When we read an e-mail message that has been sent to us, we do not have the opportunity to engage in the subtle testing and probing that is possible in real-time discussions. So, before crafting a response, we may need to feed back to the sender both elements of the message ”what has been said and what you think was meant ”so he or she can confirm that we have understood it properly. We are not recommending the rigid "you said/my response" format of the robotic executive mentioned earlier. Rather, something like, "The message I received from your e-mail is that you want to be involved in the selection of the new IT vendor. The sense I get is that you are upset because you weren't asked to be on the team that will make the decision. Is this correct?"

    If the e-mail message you received is muddled, it might be better not to try to divine the message. Instead, send back an e-mail asking for clarification. Ask questions such as, "What do you mean by _____? Can you be more specific? Can you give me any examples of _____? What else concerns you about _____?"

  • Deliver your messages clearly. When you are the sender of an e-mail message, identify the goal of your message. Ask yourself, "What's the purpose of this e-mail? Will it prompt the receiver to think or act differently? Am I communicating to inform or to persuade?"

Once you are clear about the goal of your message, you can use the subject line like a banner headline in a newspaper, warming up the recipient with a clear and concise message stating the purpose of your communiqu. Proper labeling also makes it easier for the recipient to glance at his or her inbox and identify your message as worthwhile reading. For example, if your e-mail is a request for action, state that action up front: "ACTION: SEND YOUR EDITS OF THE ATTACHED COPY TO ME BY FEBRUARY 1ST."

It is important to remember that using an e-mail to express a concern and ask a person to change his or behavior is dicey business. If a face-to-face meeting cannot be arranged, a telephone call is preferable to an electronic message. But if there is absolutely no way in which you can initiate a dialogue ”for example, you are about to board an airplane for the other end of the world; you work days and the other party works nights ”and you feel that you have no choice but to transmit your message via e-mail, keep in mind the value of straight talk and three-part "I" responses.

Depersonalize your concern; do not blame the other party for it; explain why you have a problem with his or her behavior; suggest an alternate behavior that you can both agree on.

Let's say that you are out of town, and one of your direct reports has sent you an e-mail informing you that he has missed the deadline to submit your department's travel budget to the finance department. An appropriate electronic reply might be: "When you miss deadlines like this, I am embarrassed because it gives others the impression that our department is badly managed. I'm also concerned that because we are late our budget might not be approved, and we won't have the money we need to do our job. I need you to work overtime tonight and get the figures to finance first thing in the morning."

  • There's no need to tell the world. Finally, choose recipients carefully . With the objective of your message clearly in mind, consider the most appropriate recipients. Ask yourself: "Which people need the information I am sending? Do I need them to think or do something differently as a result of my e-mail?" If not, maybe there's no reason for them to receive your message.

  1. Practice the Golden Rule. Put yourself mentally in front of the recipient's computer screen. Ask yourself, "How would I react to the message coming across the screen? Would the message be clear? Would I know what action, if any, I was being asked to take? What feeling or emotion would the message be likely to engender in me?" In other words, think before you send.

Part of practicing the Golden Rule is being sensitive to other cultures. When dealing internationally, for example, take care to eliminate Americanisms and colloquialisms from your writing. Phrases such as "You really hit a home run with that last report" are probably out of place in communications with countries where baseball is not the national sport. And, if it is already afternoon in the country to which you are writing, do not start your message with "Good morning."

After receiving negative feedback about e-mails sent by his direct reports to one of his company's international divisions, one U.S. executive instituted a new protocol that he must review any e-mail before it is sent internationally. It might seem as though this would slow things down, but it has already saved his group from at least one embarrassing situation:

We were planning an executive-development workshop at which we had reserved a certain number of places for employees in our six North American divisions and our one international group. We had already received the names of the people who would be coming from our domestic operations, but we hadn't yet been told the names of the individuals who would be filling the three slots we had reserved for international employees . One of my direct reports drafted an e-mail to the international manager saying, "We have only three slots left in our workshop. Whom do you want to attend ?" When I read it, I realized that it sounded as though we had already asked everyone else, and because we hadn't filled three slots we had decided to offer the "leftovers" to the international employees. When the writer realized how the draft could have been interpreted, he rewrote it, explaining that we were inviting three people from each division ”including international.

Most people do not have someone to provide coaching on their e-mails, but everyone can follow an approach used by Lois Huggins and screen themselves by reading their e-mails aloud. Huggins believes that you market yourself with every e-mail you send, so you should be certain that you are projecting the image you want others to have of you. As she reads aloud , she asks herself, "What's the tone of the message I'm sending? Could that word be misinterpreted? Are the sentences too long? Are there blocks and blocks of text with no space? Will it be difficult for people to read? Will they lose interest?"

  1. Respect confidentiality. A breach here is a trust-buster. Never, ever pass along a confidential e-mail to anyone not authorized to read it. It is also important to understand that there is no privacy on the Internet: Anything and everything can be discovered with the right tools in the wrong hands. A security breach could result in hackers having access to sensitive materials, and confidential plans can reach the competition through e-mail. All sensitive and confidential information should be delivered face-to-face. One IT company in New England went as far as purchasing a fleet of helicopters to fly its employees around the region for face-to-face conferences when key business plans were to be discussed. [9] A little extreme? Maybe so, but the planning process in this organization proceeded without the usual rancor and delay.

  2. Know when ”and when not ”to "cc." Top-management teams should agree on ground rules for keeping others in the cc loop. Protocols need to be developed to address the cc issue not only for e-mail sent within the top-management team but also for messages sent to other managers across functions. When in doubt, reach agreement with those involved before you cc and hit the send button. Likewise, only use cc for your e-mail when it is absolutely necessary for these people to be kept informed.

Use the reply-to -all feature sparingly. Technology makes it much easier, but not necessarily more effective, to communicate with many more people at the same time. Ask yourself, "Do all these people really need to hear my answer? Why don't I respond only to the sender of the message?" [10]

  1. Don't retain a rescuer. Do not circulate to a third party an e-mail that you have received, and then have that individual join in the response. Deal one-on-one. Otherwise, you will fall into the deadly triangulation trap. The one exception is when you receive permission from the e-mail sender to broaden involvement.

A common, yet subversive, way in which people enlist rescuers is through the "bcc" feature. At Foxtel, says Julia Nenke, sending blind copies was once prevalent , with an estimated 20 percent of e-mail users attaching them to their messages on a routine basis. Within one division, when the senior management team became aware of the practice, they announced that the bcc feature was being removed from the e-mail program. Why? According to Nenke, "Because it was being used to shore up support without the knowledge of the parties who were involved. It was absolutely in conflict with what we were trying to achieve organizationally, which was personal ownership of issues and trust."

  1. Stroke the recipient. Telemarketing coaches advise their clients to "make sure your voice has a smile." Similarly, executives would be better served if, whenever possible, their e-mail stroked the recipient. Look for an opportunity to congratulate or thank someone. Remember the executive from Singapore who chastised the manager of his Thailand operation? What if he had begun his e-mail by congratulating the manager on some aspect of the advertising campaign? Perhaps the manager had come in on budget, or the graphics he had used were exceptional. If the vice president had taken this approach, it is likely that he would have received a different reply to his e-mail.

Lois Huggins suggests using e-mail to "bury the hatchet." She has seen situations in which there has been a strained relationship between two people, and, when the conflict has eased, one of the parties has sent an e-mail to the other thanking or congratulating the former adversary: "Thanks so much for the work you did on the marketing plan; you and your team were tremendously helpful to us," or "Congratulations! I heard you got the XYZ account." And, unlike instances in which people copy others to triangulate or put another person down, in these cases it is totally appropriate to send a copy to other members of the department or unit. This communicates to all the other people who may have known in the past that there was a conflict between you that the relationship has improved. It also sends the subtle hint that maybe some of the other warring parties in the organization should follow your example.

  1. Get to know your e-mail correspondents. Michael Morris of the Stanford Business School and several other academics have studied mock negotiations that use only e-mail and compared them with those that were preceded by a brief getting-to-know-you telephone call. Not surprisingly, the second type went far more smoothly. [11]

Electronic communications are often easier when the correspondents begin by swapping photographs and personal details or when they already know each other. If you routinely correspond with outside vendors , people on other shifts, or employees of other departments or divisions, why not take some time to introduce yourself in person? If you are making a trip to see the corporate HR staff, why not stop in and say hello to the purchasing agent you have only "spoken" to through your computer? Or, if you need to work overtime one night, why not walk into the plant and say hello to the night production supervisor?

Being able to match a face with a name makes it easier to infuse your electronic correspondence with a friendly, more personal tone.

  1. When in Doubt, Don't. Take Michael Eisner's advice of suspending your response, especially when you are angry or upset. Instead, write the message, hit the save button, and then send it to your own e-mail address. Wait twenty-four hours, then open and reread the message. How would it come across if you were the recipient? If it passes the content-and-feelings litmus test, go ahead and send it.

  2. Pack a parachute . Do not be afraid to bail out of e-mail, especially when you sense the undertow of strong emotion. Before the situation deteriorates ”before misunderstandings escalate and harsh messages are exchanged ”that is the time to suggest getting together by telephone or in person.

[8] Eisner, op cit.

[9] Goldhaber, op cit.

[10] Goldhaber, op cit., p. 28.

[11] "Negotiating by E-Mail," The Economist , April 8, 2000, p. 63.




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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