Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Dec 16, 2005

The Little Email Thread That Could

Instructor, Caroline Bender

This is the story as it was told to me -- with the usual changing of names, ranks, and serial numbers.

An Individual Contributrix (Trixie) was working on a high profile project for someone other than her boss. The sponsor said, "Let me know when you get into trouble," and so she did. When another department planted its feet in the way of progress, Trixie knew that she could not just plead at her own level across the hierarchy. She needed the project sponsor to do a little politicking at his tier in order to get the blockage removed. But the sponsor was not at his desk, and his calendar showed him as out for the next two days. So she expressed her need to an email to him...and only to him.

She made her points firmly, with a sense of urgency, but taking care not to name names or throw shade on a group that was only trying to take care of its own business. But her frustration was clear, and her need for the situation to be "handled" was explicitly stated. The email's exclamation point was enough to get the sponsor's attention and a phone call was made. Trixie and the Sponsor agreed that Sponsor would handle this with his fellow executive 1-on-1, and an order to cooperate would trickle down from there.

But Sponsor did not call his peer -- at least not before forwarding Trixie's email to his Boss, a Veep with an inability to understand that "FYI" really means "reporting in, ma'am, not asking for assistance." The Veep broadcast Trixie's request for assistance to as many people under her as she could (which in this company was nearly everyone), including the staff of the Fellow Executive. This started a flurry of responses that rang In Box bells all the way down the cube rows.

The Fellow Executive, who now considered the glove thrown, responded "all-plus some" (which should be an Outlook feature) with a defensive reply about how helpful his staff can be when asked appropriately.

Fellow sends another stern reply to Veep, the Sponsor, and our Trixie about their unprofessional way of doing business -- including the broadcast of Trixie's email, which (he points out) was clearly not meant to be read by others. The Sponsor, mortified, shuts that thread down by offering to call Fellow Executive for an explanation and defending Trixie's original words. He sends a separate apology to Trixie, cc'ing the Veep, who replies-all with her version of an apology. ("I didn't see anything wrong with having other people see it.")

The live version of this workshop would have me shout, "And...FREEZE." at this point in the story. Already there are so many eye-opening lessons we must process some of them.

You Can't Block EMail Forwarding
Oh, would that it were true. But it is not. So assume that anyone could -- and will -- read your words, and write as if for the company bulletin board. This doesn't mean you can't ever complain, or call them like you see them. It means that you must stick to the facts (or obscure them completely, but that's not our point here).

Refer to Business Units, not to People
Unless you are filing a harassment complaint or an award nomination, try to stick to "The Legal Department procedures state..." or "Customer Service representatives reported..." Like, "senior White House officials." Your readers will naturally ask "Who," but answer them off the page.

Limit your Recipients
Imagine if, in the day of the inter-office email and the literal carbon copy, you would have included all these people in this discussion. Trixie took her concern to one reader, and he to one reader, but then the knotting began.

The backlash of not cc'ing the World is that others assume you didn't answer if they didn't hear about it. They will start new threads of their own, contradicting your plan or repeating your effort because they think you did not offer. So...hanged if you do...

Reprimand Privately
One action I like on the part of the Fellow Executive is that he let his peer and his peer's veep know they had offended him, and he did so outside of the large thread which included his own staff. I think he should have left Trixie out as well.

Notice how Sponsor apologized to everyone for a turmoil that was not entirely his fault, but certainly kicked off by him. He offered to call the Fellow and resolve the whole thing the old-fashioned uncomfortable way (in person) when he really could have spun several more reply rounds. Notice how the Veep... still doesn't get it.

And what in the world did Trixie do, you ask?
Trixie stayed out of it, but not consciously so. She stayed out of it only by virtue of not being in the office that day. Trixie admits that if she had been there, she might not have made the choice to stay silent, which she now realizes was the safest position. By the time Trixie was even aware of the storm, it had passed. She looks forward to using this hard lesson learned in the future by...

Not Replying Immediately to EMail Threads
Some emails deserve a quick response. They are identifiable because a question is asked, and a "need to know by" deadline is sensed. These are not the messages we are talking about.

I mean the little threads that keep going -- up hill and down -- on their way to the circus. Challenge yourself not to play along, or at the very least to call the sender with your feedback-- thereby getting your point of view directly to the source rather than competing with the reply-plusses. If this means limiting your email checks to only 8 times a day (that's one an hour) do it.

It's very freeing to delete all but the final reply, read the thread, then call the originator and say "Do you need anything more from me on this?"


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