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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The eMail You Wish Never Was

We've all done it at least once. Ideally, you only do it once.
You get caught in a moment when you are "up-to-your-eyeballs" when an email comes into your In-Box that is legitimately urgent to someone else, but just not to you at the moment.

At that instant you have some choices... quickly respond with an email back to effectively say "I'll look at this once I have a moment", flag it for follow-up but just don't reply, or pick up the phone for a brief conversation. The first and third options are both quite viable,and common sense dictates that the second option works well for you but puts you in risk of continually receiving more emails.

The problem with the first or third options in responding will come about in HOW you respond. Remember, you're not getting this email while you're casually reading my blog or sipping a coffee at your desk. Imagine yourself at the single busiest point you've been at in the past three years of work; and in executing some of that work you've needed to use your email... while accessing your email to compose a quick note to clarify some work you are delegating you notice "the message" in question.

Now we've set the scenario, and this is where the challenge comes. On 360 days of the year, this isn't an issue, but on one of those TOP FIVE busiest days you have in a year, either the content, tone, or a past interaction makes this email you receive be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Your thoughts run very quickly along the lines of "does this person have any idea how busy I am right now?" or "why is this issue MY problem right now?" I know mine have!

This is the point where you either quickly type up an email response or pick up the phone.

This is also the point where you can unwittingly make a mistake that can take some time to mend.

The reality is that 95% of the time, the sender of the email does NOT know how busy you are, and the issue was obviously of importance to them, but not urgent enough to warrant them placing a phone call to you. Generally speaking, that should be the first indicator that you do NOT need to reply this instant. But, our human nature and sense of ownership of situations as managers urges us to quickly plunk at the keyboard a hasty reply and click send, then blast off to the other 32 things desperately needing our attention at that moment.

An hour (or not even that long!) later you get the phone call that makes you realise that you wish you'd never clicked "send." In your haste, urgency, and certain level of frustration you've typed something you shouldn't have; something that under any "normal" circumstances you never would have, and now you've opened Pandora's box.

So my long-winded story has gotten us to the point where we have two things to cover: what we do now to deal with the situation and how we learn not to get into the situation again.

The only way to deal with a situation like this is to "eat crow." The reality is that while you have correctly perceived that someone else had no idea of how busy, stressed, harried you were at the moment they had electronically requested something of you that you felt was not your responsibility to have to deal with, you also sent off an email without considering or understanding how busy, stressed, or harried this individual was with what they were dealing with at that moment. It's entirely likely that the problem they were bringing to you "isn't yours" but perhaps they felt they had nowhere else to go, and were looking for help (regardless of how that request may have been phrased).

So now, as a responsible manager, it behooves us to go cap-in-hand to the individual you sent the electronic reply to and hold a brief but frank discussion, starting with a sincere apology for your tone, but focused on understanding their issue, helping them understand what you have on your plate, and coming up with some solution. You may not have their answer, but more than likely, once you understand WHY they were asking you in the first place, you can point them to someone else who does have the answers. And have this conversation face-to-face if at all possible; this kind of thing does not translate well over the phone, and further emails will only risk making things worse due to their intrinsic impersonal nature.

And finally, how do we avoid this kind of situation? As I suggested much earlier, if you are truly over-whelmed do NOT send an email or phone the individual without taking five minutes to think through your answer in the context of the question: "What is happening at this persons desk right now to prompt them to send me this email?" This is a great little trick guaranteed to put you in the right frame of mind to be helpful and avoid unnecessary workplace confrontations and stress.

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