Enough already! I am flooded with requests to write about irritations, rudeness, ridiculous timewasters. Everyone has his or her own rules about proper communications and is busy getting huffy about violators. As you know if you've ever been in marriage counseling, the prime cause of sour relationships is thoughtlessness, and the same is true here. The real problem is the absence of Clear Thinking, guys.
The highest volume sinner against clear thinking is e-mail. As we plow through our red inboxes we are vulnerable to the sort of thoughtlessness that is caused by a fear of becoming a bottleneck. Rush, rush with the response -- move it along. But really, if you look over your own e-mail inbox, you'll see that what is needed here is often not more hustle, but more deliberation.
I enjoy a good, juicy e-mail string the way other people like a soap opera. Here is drama, power, suspense! I've started collecting them.
I was privileged recently to review a lovely e-mail string that perfectly illustrates this problem. It started as a simple request by an employee for permission to revise an obsolete brochure posted on our intranet. The employee sent her request by e-mail to the person she was told to. The request was denied, the reason having to do with a "new policy." The employee wondered if there's a new policy to support the posting of obsolete information. So she wrote back, very politely, clarifying her request. She got the same answer back, but now the recipient's fairly rude response was copied to others, above and sideways.
Well, from then on, the whole thing ballooned. By the time the dust settled, two months later, the message passed through 18 mailboxes, scaled five organization levels, confused a vice president and two directors, and crossed and re-crossed into five different units.
Standing outside the issue, you can see where the simple attempt to communicate broke down: worries about "policy" expanded the distribution list beyond what was necessary because the recipient read the e-mail too fast and responded thoughtlessly. There are rules that help avoid time-wasters like this one:
- Don't extend an e-mail string beyond three responses
- Summarize the issue
- Seek to resolve the issue, not just pass it along
- Consider the distribution list carefully
- Pick up the phone when you don't understand someone's e-mail
None of these rules of thumb, however, will protect our company against your failure to think clearly about what is going on right in front of you. Read and respond to e-mail with clear thinking firmly engaged.