When we work together to resolve issues or make decisions, or even to gather information, we engage in a series of exchanges. We ask and respond to questions, report status, propose explanations, provide opinions, and much more. We do this in email, by teleconference, in face-to-face meetings, and at times, by text message. One exchange can even span several of these media. But because so many of us are moving targets, email has become a primary means of carrying out these exchanges. It's so dominant that we use it even when we don't need to, and that's where the trouble begins.
Exchanging email is a kind of conversing, but it differs from telephone and face-to-face conversation in important ways. Email doesn't represent emotive content faithfully; the writing skills of authors of email are variable; and authors tend to dash off messages without careful thought. I could go on.
But four properties of email exchanges expose participants to elevated risk of making wrong decisions. These four receive much less attention than they deserve. Here in Part I are two of these properties.
- End-to-end latency
- In the context of email exchanges, latency is usually defined as the time between origination and receipt of a contribution to the conversation. We can call this form of latency transmission latency. It can differ for different participants. Perhaps more significantly, and more usefully, latency could be defined as the time between the author's conceiving a contribution and the recipient's reading it. We can call this kind of latency end-to-end latency. What happens during the end-to-end latency period includes all transmission delay, but also delays caused by workplace interruptions, offsets in the sleep-wake cycle, urgent demands for the attention of authors and recipients, and other factors.
- In some Email exchanges are unlike
Time delays can
have severe effects.instances, end-to-end latency can be infinite. This happens when spam filtering blocks or quarantines messages; when authors intend to contribute but fail to do so for some reason; when recipient errors or high incoming email volume cause recipients to overlook messages; or when recipients misinterpret messages and on that faulty basis elect not to respond.
- Duration of message content validity
- In synchronous meetings — face-to-face, live video, or telephone — when a participant's contribution is invalid in some respects, other participants can offer corrections almost immediately or relatively quickly. The original contributor might then either dispute or accept the correction, equally immediately. Invalid contributions have relatively short lifetimes.
- By contrast, in email exchanges, invalid contributions can have longer — sometimes much longer — effective lifetimes, because of the longer end-to-end latency of email messages. And during the time in which the invalid content is extant, it can spin off additional content that itself can be invalid. When contributions correcting the original message finally appear, the original poster might not see them immediately, which further delays final resolution of the issue.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Decision-Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
- Deliver the Headline First
- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes
frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That
might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the
headline first, and then offer the details.
- Definitions of Insanity
- When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of
the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass
the sanity test.
- Inbox Bloat Recovery
- If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If
it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't.
Here are some effective suggestions.
- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which
can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little
skill and discipline, but it can work.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 12: Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
- Shared information bias is widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But over time, it can erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality and the group's perceptions of reality. Available here and by RSS on December 12.
- And on December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.