As a young professional, I often did not realize how much my “transparent email communication” came in the way of resolving conflict bottlenecks. Over time, I figured that is is not hard to see why having tough conversations over email is a bad idea.
The problem with email
It is a faster mode of communication, and there are usually two ways to do email – keep it short and to-the-point, say your piece, and get out of the recipient’s face, or fluff it up with smileys, unnecessary fillers, and out-of-place reverence.
The latter takes much longer and is a rather inefficient way to communicate in an already time-crunched work environment. The former is dangerous in times of conflict. It leaves much open to interpretation. Candid feedback can look curt. Transparency can be incorrectly perceived as combative or confrontational.
If a less-than-respectful email lands in your inbox, there is usually a strong urge to address it and inform the writer just how wrong he/she is. The first nasty email is always the hardest to ignore. You respond to it with all the facts and necessary firmness, and the next thing you know, you have gone into a cycle of he-said-she-said that lasts just the entire day, if you are lucky.
While I am all for not taking work this personally, we have to realize that teams are made up of individuals with varying degrees of IQ and EQ. Finding the lowest common denominator in terms of how to communicate is essential when it comes to resolving work conflicts.
There must be a better way to deal with tough conversations
The good news is that there is! As a manager or leader, if you need to hold someone accountable for something they did not deliver, it is best to do it face-to-face. Not only does it give both parties a chance to better understand each other’s perspective through tonality and body language, it also opens an opportunity for dialogue instead of insular, one-way reprimands. If a face-to-face conversation is not possible, a video or phone call is the next best way to resolve conflicts.
You can always follow up the conversation with email documentation. Once tough insinuations are out of the way, email documentation helps both parties objectively focus on the way forward. It must list down a call-to-action, next steps, and the end goal.
But sometimes, email is unavoidable. What do we do then?
There are rare instances when there is no other way to resolve a conflict other than good old email. One such instance is when conflicting parties work out of different time zones. Such situations demand that you play up your objectivity quotient.
Once you have drafted the email, take a break. Ask someone to proofread it for objectivity. Read it again, and only then hit send. This gives you time to think through your response and not respond in the heat of the moment. Lack of objectivity in difficult or combative emails can get very hard to address once the moment has passed.
So the next time you are about to shoot off an angry email to someone you are disagreeing with at work, think again. Address matters like productivity and efficiency before you decide that that email must be sent. Do you really want to waste your time on avoidable unpleasant exchanges at work? Would you rather get the job done and move on instead? I would imagine that the battles to pick here are crystal clear.