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VIEWPOINT: E-mail: a corporate conversation killer

March 26, 2007

P s y c h o l o g i s t Daniel Goleman, who popularized the term "emotional intelligence" with his series of best sellers on the subject, has a new book called "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships." In it, Goleman focuses on the emerging field of social neuroscience and what it's revealing about the human brain being wired for interconnectedness with others. Notably, his observations concerning online communication should be of interest to anyone who has ever written an angry workplace e-mail and regrettably hit the Send button.

In a Sept. 24 USA Today interview, Goleman said, "It's been noted since the first days of the Internet that it allows a person to say something they [sic] would never say were they face-to-face ... . If we're upset or agitated and we're with the person, we might say something artfully because our social brain is telling us how to do it. But without it online, it lets us do whatever we want-and sometimes with unfortunate consequences."

Sometimes, indeed. When it comes to e-mail-facilitator of social disconnectedness, killer of meaningful organizational conversations-we need to remember the face and the person on the receiving end opening our messages. Aside from the voluminous poor writing occurring in much workplace e-mail and the costly and time-consuming communication inefficiencies it creates-often generating the need for follow-up for the sake of clarity-its emotional punch can pack a wallop, intended or not. In a former life as an executive working for a nationally recognized not-for-profit corporation, I lived through a major organizational meltdown due to an exchange of unfortunate e-mail messages. This "evilmail" quickly ignited a raging inferno that engulfed the organization, resulting in a legal dispute that burned up several years, a small fortune and the energy of valuable employees before being put out. All because of the false cover e-mail provides, thereby encouraging reckless communication behavior. Don't get me wrong; e-mail definitely has its use as a workplace communication tool. It's well-designed for: project-management information sharing meeting scheduling event notifications brief cover letters for attached documents alerts regarding sudden business developments E-mail is not designed for: sending disciplinary messages venting making disparaging personal remarks about others

waging business arguments (keep in mind that e-mail is evidentiary in a legal dispute)

replacing face-to-face discussions

Paradoxically, e-mail can promote workplace communication breakdowns. Feuding co-workers in adjacent cubicles will e-mail each other to avoid personal contact. And those who want to avoid conflict often exacerbate ongoing issues by hiding behind e-mail. Such avoidance behavior inhibits the resolution of differences, hurts teamwork and damages productivity. That's just no way to live.

So the next time your body's neural network lights up from a negative workplace stimulus, here's an idea: Don't retreat to your office and fire off an indignant e-mail. Instead, sleep on it. The following day, approach the co-worker with whom you disagree or feel wronged by for an in-person conversation. This is the way real communication gets done. After all, it's just the way we're built.



Mulherin is an organizational development consultant specializing in service improvement, organizational communication and management coaching. He can be reached at 257-6128 or tm@theservicemagazine.com.
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