Now that we’ve discussed how to organize your email and deal with the senders, we need to discuss the softer side of choosing your communication medium. Email is a crutch when it comes to communication. It’s easy to use, plus you can fit in all the snarky comments that you will kick yourself later for not saying. It’s so easy that it causes problems. Email is not the panacea for human communication, and I’m not just playing the part of the old guy that misses giving his paper check to Dottie, the friendly bank teller who gossips a little bit too much.
Raymond A. Friedman and Steven C. Currall researched how email can actually escalate conflicts in ways that wouldn’t happen in a face to face or telephone conversation. They found several ways in which an escalation could happen (see the link above for the entire paper):
- Use of aggressive tactics. If e-mail communication encourages the use of more aggressive tactics during a dispute, or makes a counterpart’s tactics appear more aggressive, then escalation will be triggered.
- Changes in view of other. Escalation is more likely if e-mail causes negative changes in psychological processes (e.g. perceptions and attitudes) towards the other, such as (i) seeing the other as unfair, (ii) lessening empathy toward them, (iii) increasing anonymity, or (iv) seeing the other as immoral.
- Weakened interpersonal bonds. If e-mail weakens social bonds with the other, then escalation is more likely (e.g. due to reduced inhibitions for aggression).
- Problems are difficult to resolve. If the communication limitations of e-mail (e.g. asynchrony deficits) make problems more difficult to solve, conflict may be escalated as frustrated disputants move from mild to more aggressive strategies to achieve their goals.
While the personal litmus test of “Would you like to receive this kind of information in an email?” is valid, differing viewpoints and technological evolution are shifting societal norms. Instead, ask some questions about the message and its recipient. Is this a difficult message to give (such as termination or negative feedback)? Will a five minute conversation save twenty back and forth emails with tons of people on CC? Is there a chance that this message will not be clearly received? Then don’t ONLY use email.
Wait, what is this twist? You said (and capitalized) “only” back there.
One trick that I learned from a couple of larger companies is that once you have a face to face meeting with someone, it helps to reinforce the subject and outcomes (including action items) in an email. This means, you take notes during the meeting and send a recap email out afterwards. It becomes harder to back down from commitments once they’ve been made in writing, and can help clarify points that may have been missed. It also serves to document and cover you in the case that something happens.
Now that we know when we can use email, let’s discuss how to find information. Tune back in next week!