Stop Messaging, Start Communicating

Case notes: why email should come with a health warning

I was asked to coach a manager who worked for medium sized a software and services company. She identified a number of issues to address as part of her coaching: increased self-confidence and assertiveness, better presentation skills, improved demand management and so on.

During her coaching she mentioned a difficult relationship with another manager. After she’d alluded to these difficulties 2 or 3 times, we started to explore why this relationship wasn’t working. She cited what she saw as obstruction from the other party, the deliberate ignoring of requests for information, role boundary overlaps and clashes over ‘who does what’.

It became clear that her interaction with this person was frequent, daily and core to her role. This relationship had to be sorted out. After more discussion we established that on some days they exchanged 30 or more emails. These included straightforward ‘transactional’ requests for action or information, but with an increasing number of contentious exchanges, reflecting the issues between the two managers.

Being suspicious that the use of email was at least partly to blame, I questioned the need for so much email traffic. I had assumed the two managers were not co-located. It then emerged that they not only worked in the same building, but on the same floor. Their desks were approximately 10 meters apart.

We agreed that my client would stop emailing the other manager. Instead she would take a few relatively straightforward issues over to the other manager’s desk to discuss them, informally, at a mutually agreed time. She would be prepared to give a little on some issues, hoping to have the compliment returned. It worked almost immediately, and the ‘problem’ relationship started to move forward. The other manager’s apparent intransigence over some issues all but evaporated when the two discussed the matter in person.

6 thoughts on “Stop Messaging, Start Communicating

  1. I heartily agree with the argument in this post, having also experienced a number of bosses who used the few then available mechanisms (pre-email and, thankfully, text) to avoid ‘difficult’ conversations, announcements and interactions; this always caused bad feeling and resentment and undermined respect and loyalty both to them and the organisation. The medium of communication is as important as the detailed content, the prime example being ‘body language’ in face-to-face interaction. If a person has the courage and honesty to deliver a message directly, in person, and persevere (or endure) through the associated anxiety and real or perceived physical risk, they show themselves to be Human and at least bothered enough to make the effort to face the audience and see it through; they earn a degree of respect, probably quite a lot in most cases. By contrast, the less the effort and risk required by the medium, the less relationship investment is perceived by the receiver, probably to the detriment of the relationship.
    I was brought up and educated in an environment in which you were expected to write important letters by hand, in ink, neatly and on good paper (or at least to salute and sign in ink manuscript), and this was echoed by my basic officer training in the Royal Navy in the mid-1980s; I believe some of this formality remains even now. This was explicitly to show the recipient that you appreciated the importance of the interaction and that you were willing to go to some trouble to communicate with them, similarly to dressing tidily for an actual meeting. I still feel very complemented by friends who actually take the trouble to write me a letter, rather than the usual text or email.
    It’s a while since I’ve seen the old florist’s slogan: “say it with flowers”. I think it’s unlikely that Interflora will ever replace this with “say it with %>” [txt flowers], though I have met a couple of blokes who thought that would do instead for their girlfriends… those relationships didn’t last !

  2. … I’ve just recalled a conversation I overheard between two young lads at college today, discussing having arguments and arranging to have a fight with somebody – via Facebook!
    My concern about this is whether they’re likely to wind the situation up into a much more serious one than if they’d sorted the argument, and perhaps the actual fight, earlier, facing up to each other rather than upping the ante online first… if it’s a trend, worrying.
    Would ‘leaders’ used to this way of doing things be more likely to go to war?

  3. Thank you, Spincop, for another thought provoking essay. I agree with and recognise many of your observations. However I do disagree with your suggestion to ‘fight tooth and nail against the achievement of this end-game’ [the end-game being the almost obsessive or constant use of instant electronic communication instead of often difficult face to face communications].

    I started my career in 1990 in a department of 15 with a ‘386’ and a beast in the corner with 5.25” disks. I’ve recently finished working with a specialist team within a finance function of a major multinational company. My clients are in their late 20s and 30s. They sat in meetings keeping one eye on, or even using, mobile devices – often 2 per person. Keeping to a structured agenda was usually impossible.

    I realised I needed to adapt my way of working, and to go with the flow a bit more than I found comfortable, rather than ask for devices to be turned off. I found we were able to cover all the topics and decide on the necessary actions. It really hit home when I came to document the meetings – I usually ended up following the structure set out in the agenda and not the stream of consciousness I had scribbled on my own mobile device, a paper pad.

    So why do I disagree with the suggestion to fight? Frankly because I think the battle is over. We may not like it, but we have to live with it.

    I was pleased to find with my finance team it was still possible to have conversations about the messages they wanted or needed to convey. And also about getting them to consider what communication channel they preferred and what the person they were intending to communicate with might prefer. This was where the option of a difficult face to face conversation could be suggested and even role played.

    For me, this has made me think again about the challenges of attempting to cause of influence culture change… rather than what I think are symptomatic behaviours within that culture.

  4. I think this is basically human nature – it is simply that electronic communication has provided an easy way out for people. I have rarely ever shirked away from telling people what I think (other than perhaps with some members of my family) and I generally prefer to do that face to face. But my sense is that most people like to avoid confrontation and there is an expectation that ‘difficult conversations’ will lead to that, when in fact, quite often they can improve the climate within an organisation or team. From what I have observed, it gets worse the higher you get in an organisation…….it seems to me that very few senior managers are able/or willing to create the time or the setting to have really good quality conversations with their direct reports. Having said that there is nothing wrong with a text or e-mail – it is all about the most appropriate form of communication for the message you are trying to convey at that time. I believe that people like to know where they stand so regular feedback and dialogue is very important. One observation I would make is that it is harder to talk to people these days – diaries seem to be clogged up with back to back meetings or teleconference calls – so the benefit of writing an e-mail is that you get it off your ‘to-do’ list.

    I am sure there are benefits to be had from investing in conversations – if you could quantify it and demonstrate the impact on an organisation then you might start to change behaviour.

  5. Interesting stuff Stopcop – On the one hand you can’t beat either looking someone in the eye for a conversation, or failing that, speaking to them directly. Somehow electronic communication has become so easy – it it the lazy persons preferred method of communication?
    On the other hand, here we all are, using social media to communicate – how hypocritical are we all?
    I guess the real answer is that there is room for both, and used appropriately, they can both be useful, but not good if used in the wrong situation.
    (By the way – I know and like Darren Waters and would validate his claims about his communication style )

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