Sony’s “private” e-mails are now getting pasted all over the news and Internet. Talking heads everywhere are lamenting the fact that this “could happen to any company.” Top Sony executives are apologizing and mentioning that the e-mails were hastily written between friends, without much sensitivity. And of course (this is the United States, after all), there are lawsuits.
Although many cyber-security companies are flexing their PR muscles to grab interview slots on the evening news, the real conversation we should be having here isn’t about network infrastructure. It’s about your company’s addiction to e-mail.
Human Nature vs. Team Communication
Truth: people on your team will talk. They will say things they shouldn’t. Their conversations will likely, at times, wander off-topic, meander into off-color, and end up inappropriate. It’s called human nature.
So the question isn’t whether potentially problematic conversations will happen. It’s where they will happen. As Sony now knows, e-mail is not the right place to address these topics.
And as I’ve long known, e-mail is also not the place to have many, many of the discussions that we’re trying to tackle there.
Fixing your team’s addiction to e-mail will not only help protect your company; it will also vastly improve your communication and teamwork atmosphere. (A benefit that far outweighs the plus of not getting Sony’d.)
Step #1: Recognize that E-Mail is a Tool
These days, an unfortunate majority of corporate Americans are slaves to e-mail. But it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to a more sane (and smart) communication middle ground, where we use e-mail when most effective and efficient, and use our myriad other means of communication – including (yes!) real-time, voice-to-voice interaction – with much greater frequency.
It’s management who must facilitate this change, and management that can facilitate this change. How, you ask?
First, by believing that you can, indeed, pull it off. That you and your team can stop submitting to the tempting tyranny of this tool.
And therein lies step #1:
Recognize that e-mail is a tool. It is not your master. It’s not anyone’s master. Espousing the “I’m buried in e-mail” mindset means adopting a hopeless and passive attitude.
Step #2: Realize How Ineffective E-Mail Is
Armed with your new, proactive mind-set, consider this: e-mail was not designed for effective communication. Rather, it was created for convenient communication. We happen to love convenience, which is the reason for our incredible overuse of the technology. So in the end, we’re choosing the “easy” route rather than embracing the high effort of being effective in our interchanges.
When we communicate, we basically have 3 categories of expression available:
- Facial expression, body movement, gestures, etc.
- Voice tone, pauses, modulation of volume, etc.
- Words we choose, grammar, sentence structure, etc.
Now consider this: research has shown that
- 55% of what a listener takes away is based on #1
- 35% is based on #2
- 10% is based on #3
Wow. 10% of what the audience “hears” is based on the stuff you can write in an e-mail.
Actually, the written word is the most dangerous form of communication. You can’t adjust it as you gauge reaction. You can’t nuance it with gestures and voice tone. You can’t soften it or add emphasis with volume modulation. Words on the page or screen just sit there, awaiting the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the reader.
This is largely why great writers are so rare. Forget great. It’s why good writers are few and far between.
Using E-mail for Its Purpose
E-mail is perfect for communicating logistics and information:
“Confirmed. I’ll be there for lunch at Harry’s at 11:30 on 12/12.”
“Attached is the report you requested.”
E-mail is a horrible (worse, destructive) tool for handling conflict, criticism, emotion, judgement, or gossip, among other things.
So the next time you have something like this to communicate, think 55 – 35 – 10.
Opt for in-person first. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Do not send an e-mail to deal with such complex and nuanced issues.
“I’m too busy” you say? There you go picking convenience over effectiveness. How convenient do you suppose this hacking firestorm is for the Sony execs’ “busy” schedules?
Remember: Candy bars are more convenient than taking time for lunch. But they’re not the most effective way to maintain your health.
The same philosophy applies to e-mail and the health of your team.