Thursday, March 30, 2006


Is it just me, or does e-mail enable passive aggressive behavior in the workplace?

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE e-mail. I actually PREFER e-mail to other forms of communication most of the time…for a lot of reasons. I’m just beginning to wonder if perhaps we’ve come to rely on it a little too much. Personally speaking, I KNOW I have.

The merits of electronic correspondence are many.

• E-mail gives me the ability to craft considerate, thoughtful messages with a level of clarity I can’t reliably produce in real-time conversation. I can actually THINK about what I want to say before I say it. I can be more wary of my tone, and read my communiqué before dispatching it to ensure it accomplishes precisely what I intend it to.

• I also think e-mail is a better way to communicate because it can mitigate a lot of the emotion associated with real-time discussions. I can keep my cool in formulating rational, respectful responses instead of relying on risky knee-jerk reactions to a harshly spoken word. I’m an emotional guy with strong opinions and, unfortunately, I’m not nearly as articulate without a keyboard as I am with one. As a result, I tend to avoid verbal confrontation. Not only does e-mail permit me a voice, it affords me a voice of reason.

• Another reason I prefer e-mail is its unobtrusive nature. E-mail gives me complete control over my time. Phone calls and face-to-face discussions are sophisticated dances requiring partners be conscientious of each other’s time and level of involvement. Entering and exiting conversations in today’s busy world can be awkward, and delicate conversations can be emotional minefields – a single verbal misstep and you won’t have a leg left to stand on! Let’s face it, sometimes we’re just not in the mood to talk – and when we are, sometimes the person we’d like to speak with isn’t in the mood to listen. E-mail bridges that divide by letting us carry on entire conversations when it’s most convenient for us to do so.

• Finally, I like that e-mail is verifiable. Unless recorded, spoken words are fast forgotten. Consider how often your recollection of a conversation doesn’t match the recollection of someone else who was engaged in that same conversation! It happens every single day. More often than not, we hear what we want to hear, and remember what we choose to remember – the good, bad, and exceedingly ugly. E-mail lets us bypass the proverbial “He said, she said” drama in favor of a single, indelible truth. If you wrote it, there’s a record of it. Argument settled.

Still, for all of these advantages, I’ve decided that e-mail is a productivity killer in the workplace, largely because it’s an easy way for people to avoid – ahem – WORKING. I’m not talking about the person who procrastinates by reading and sending personal e-mail all day long (to say nothing of the prolific blogger). That’s a time management issue. I’m talking about the person who consistently compromises workplace efficiency by e-mailing instead of picking up the phone and calling. You know who you are – and we are each other.

I admit it. I'm not much of a phone guy. But at work, schedules often demand immediate action. And e-mail does not serve this purpose. The whole idea behind e-mail is that it is NOT immediate! And yet day after day I hear people at the office waiting around for e-mails. When I ask for status updates on time-sensitive projects, I get the same (unacceptable) response: “I e-mailed earlier and am just waiting to hear back.” Meanwhile, valuable grains of sand are slipping away.

E-mail is easy. It’s a great way to communicate exactly what you want to say. It’s unobtrusive. It’s verifiable. But it’s SLOW. More and more I’ve found myself gently suggesting that people pick up the phone to get answers instead of sending an e-mail, and more and more I’m finding that people are resisting real-time contact. E-mail has made us lazy. Instead of engaging a live person to solicit an answer or commitment, we shoot off an e-mail and trust that the person on the other end is as engaged in the process as we are. This is seldom the case. How often do people sit at their computers anxiously awaiting the arrival of an e-mail so they can immediately respond, like eager high school kids flirting online at midnight? Working people have other things to do. The most egregious example of this kind of behavior, in my less than humble opinion, is the inter-workplace e-mail situation where people often sit within earshot of each other - yet send e-mails back and forth instead of settling important matters instantly, in the open. But, alas, we are who we are.

And that brings me back to my original thought. If I were the passive aggressive type, e-mail would be a tool of empowerment. It would enable me to logjam and bottleneck workflow at every impasse. If I didn’t like the way things were going, I could sit on important e-mails for days. I could drag productivity to a grinding halt by asking pointless, time-consuming questions that would take even longer to answer because all communications were being executed via e-mail. In this way, e-mail as a workplace communications tool is actually COUNTER-productive.

I see this kind of behavior all the time and I wonder why we let it happen. Perhaps we’re complicit because we appreciate the many advantages of sending an e-mail over making a call. Or, because we don’t want to put someone on the spot. Or, because we’re trying to be considerate of a person’s clear preference in communication. Or, maybe e-mail happens to be more convenient for us as well. Whatever the underlying justification for this inefficiency, it creates undue tension and probably ought to be addressed if we want to start getting things done for a change.

In fact, I’m going to fire off a quick e-mail about all of this right now…

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