Three Steps to Avoid an E-Mail Disaster July 12 2012

We’ve all been there. You get an e-mail that makes you angry, disappointed or just generally torques you out. Before you even realize it, you’re typing out a reply that will bring swift justice and retribution to the offending party. It’s at this point that you need to cue the scene from an action movie where the hero is trying to save someone from impending disaster, waves his arms and screams, “Nooooooo!!!!!”

If you ignore that guy and click send, you might be creating a disaster for yourself. Earlier this month, I was talking with a senior manager who told me that early in his career he sent an email that has cost him $300,000 to date. That’s the amount of salary increases he figures he’s missed out on as a result of the promotion that was cancelled after he sent his flamer. He learned his lesson about e-mailing when torqued but at a very high and very tangible price.

Don’t let it happen to you. Here are three steps you can take to avoid creating an e-mail disaster for yourself and others.

WAIT: While I don’t have any stats to back it up, I’m willing to bet that most e-mail replies that cause problems for their senders are written and sent within a few seconds or minutes of reading the incoming e-mail. As they say in the emotional intelligence biz, it’s that old amygdala hijack. Here’s how to avoid that. Write out a Post-It note right now that says, WAIT, and stick it on your computer.  My coaching friend, Frank Ball taught me that WAIT is an acronym for Why Am I Talking? It can also stand for Why Am I Typing? Seeing that big WAIT by your screen just might cause you to slow down enough to avoid disaster.

Breathe: When you do slow down, step away from the computer and breathe. Taking a few deep breaths will help clear out the neuro-chemicals that have taken you to DefCon Five.  For extra bonus points, go for a walk. If necessary, make it a long one.

Respond: Humans are the only species that have the capacity to manage the gap between stimulus and response. The incoming e-mail was the stimulus. If you give yourself the chance, you get to choose how to respond. In doing so, ask yourself two questions. What am I trying to accomplish over the longer run here? And, what’s the best way for me to respond to accomplish that? The best response may not be an e-mail at all. It might be a conversation.

What strategies or tactics do you use to avoid an e-mail disaster? What’s the worst thing you’ve seen happen as a result of e-mail flame throwing?

6 Responses to “Three Steps to Avoid an E-Mail Disaster”

  1. Mary Motz says:

    Great post, Scott! With email, people (wrongly) assume two things: 1. that email is private and 2. that the recipient will fully understand a message, regardless of how it is written.

    Unless an email message is encrypted, assume it is public (it can always be "dug up" – especially if you are on a networked environment like MS Exchange). Whether you know it or not, a copy will exist in multiple places.

    Besides avoiding angry e-outbursts, it's important to simply slow down and respect your recipient enough to write clearly. A careless, angry or just poorly-written email can really create problems, both practical and personal.

    Thanks for posting this badly needed reminder!

    • Hey Mary, great point on the fact that emails never go away. So many example of that in the news over the years. The most recent would be the Louis Freeh investigation of what the Penn State president, Joe Paterno and others knew about the Sandusky case and when they knew it. Thanks for sharing your reminder.<p style=”font-family: Calibri, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; “>

  2. LAS says:

    When I find myself typing loudly and furiously, I wait until the next day to respond and then have a third party read the response to ensure that I am conveying fact and not just emotion. The "I have to sleep on it" rule has saved me (and my company) many times. If I feel I HAVE to respond the same day, I merely state "Thanks for your comment/concern/question, and I will be able to respond fully tomorrow."

    • Sleeping on it is a great way to manage the gap between stimulus and response. Thanks for sharing your voice of experience Linda.Cheers -Scott<p style=”font-family: Calibri, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; “>

  3. Don Dewey says:

    Face to face is ALWAYS better than email — if your goal is to maintain or re-establish a relationship.
    If that's not practical, go to Word and type your response to get your thoughts and feelings out in front of you. Then save it until tomorrow.
    Now open it up and re-read your words of great wisdom (or not). In most cases, that will be the end of it. If not, you'll likely find that you have a more reasoned approach and message (if you still feel the need to say anything at all).
    We all tend to judge others by their actions (and words), while we judge our self by our intentions. "Slow to speak, quick to hear, slow to anger."

    • “We all tend to judge others by their actions (and words), while we judge our self by our intentions.” Could not agree more. Thanks for the thoughtful and useful comment Don.Cheers -Scott<p style=”font-family: Calibri, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; “>

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