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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And if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to
interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly
common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance.
And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- An Agenda for Agendas
- Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed"
agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- Twelve Tips for More Masterful Virtual Presentations: II
- Virtual presentations are unlike face-to-face presentations, because in the virtual environment, we're
competing for audience attention against unanticipated distractions. Here's Part II of a collection
of tips for masterful virtual presentations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.