Email is a helpful tool which has enabled employees to stay connected and facilitate work, especially since the pandemic. Recently, it has become a form of work in itself in regards to the intended and interpreted tone of any given email. In addition, responding to email before and after hours has been shown to produce anxiety which is harmful to not only the employee, but for their family and colleagues as well. As if the obligation to stay on top of emails wasn’t enough. Incivility in email correspondence has existed since the rise in popularity in the 80’s, but now that it is a primary mode of communication the abuse is unavoidable. How do we protect ourselves and our teams from email incivility?
We all have been cc’d on an email string that started out as a simple question and through 3-4 more people getting cc’d in, has become this huge mess of a thing with the overwhelming tone of “someone is going to burn for this form not getting filled out correctly!” Where did this conversation go wrong? How did it go from “Hey, can I get a status on this?” to “Off with their heads!” in mere minutes? The main problem with email, is that it is impossible to determine tone or intent from just text, leaving it up to us to fill in the holes with speculation, which is dangerous.
You can do your part to influence how people receive your emails by building trust with your colleagues ahead of time. I touch on the importance of this in my last blog about relationships. If you are honest and transparent with your colleagues, this is the behavior they will come to expect and trust, which makes interactions over virtual means much more enjoyable and productive. Doing work ahead of time can have huge payoffs down the road.
I have found when I am an unwilling participant in the email mob, I am compelled to respond in two ways. On one hand, I want to jump on the bandwagon and rabble rouse with the rest. I seldom act on this urge (thankfully), but it is there. My usual response is to protect the target of these bullies (which are usually administrators), and redirect the conversation to actual solutions vs. accusations. After all, are we going through all this trouble to actually get something done, or do we just want to hear ourselves talk?
This tactic has been helpful for me when I am on the receiving end of one of these nastygrams too. Will it be worth it to me to get down in the weeds and argue, or am I better off just getting to the point of the matter to resolve the situation and move on? The answer is clearly the latter. The BEST part of this is that nobody has to accept fault. We just move to get the task accomplished. Clear the noise and pave the way. It takes the emotion out of what should be an emotional situation, gives me the control over my reaction, and gives the end result to the jerk who wrote the initial email, and we can all move on with our lives.
Email incivility will continue to exist unless there is a huge culture shift in many organizations. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. YOU can control how YOU respond which is all you really need to maintain. Hopefully if you are consistent in this behavior, others will follow, and the culture will start to change too. If not, you were able to stay on the high road despite the odds, and the view is always better from the high road.
Take in the sights from the high road my friends! What a view!