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:
- How to Eliminate Meetings
- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended
many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could
change our lives.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words
- When we take special care in choosing our words, so as to avoid creating misimpressions, something strange
often happens: we create a misimpression of ignorance or deceitfulness. Why does this happen?
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
- People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some
tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics.
- Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective
- Although logic and reasoning are useful tools for problem solving and decision making, they're less
useful for exchanging ideas among collaborators. Effectiveness in presenting one's own views to others
requires more clarity than logic.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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