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Don’t Press Send!

By Kimberly Wiefling

Dateline: Future

Telepathic Email App Poses Risk to Team Harmony

Have you ever hit the send button on email only to spend the next couple of days cleaning up the mess you made by sending it? During intensely stressful times the filters between our thoughts and our mouths can stop functioning. This is a particularly dangerous time to capture those thoughts in an email. Even if what we say is "the truth" as we perceive it, it's best not to have the narration from our "dark side" in writing where it can come back to haunt us.

These telepathic emails give some insights into how deeply we impact each other.

On a series of long flights around Asia I cast aside my mantle of positivity and passed the hours aloft by considering what kind of email might be triggered by some of the less-than-inspiring workplace behaviors I've experienced. While decidedly negative, these telepathic emails do give some insights into how deeply we impact each other, and how we might shift our behavior to positively shift our impact.

Here's an email that some of the managers I've met in my career might inspire in their employees:

Dear Busy Manager,

Although you may think that paying me a salary is enough of a reward for doing my job, I have bigger dreams than to simply trade the best years of my life for a paycheck. Yes, I have an underemployed spouse, a kid in college, and a home mortgage, but I want to be more than a wage slave.

First of all, when I do something well, how about mentioning it? Your silence is difficult to interpret. It could mean you've got no complaints about my work, but after two rounds of layoffs this past year I'm more likely to imagine that you're merely tolerating me while you search for my replacement. I notice that you're pretty quick to point out my failings, and I'd appreciate the same promptness when I do a great job.

Next, it'd be nice if you showed the same level of commitment to communicating with our team as you do to tracking our department's budget. You never seem to be too busy to update your spreadsheets, but it's been weeks since we had a one-on-one, and months since we had an all hands meeting. Oh, and I notice you always make time to meet with the executives.

And, finally, how about sticking up for me when I need your support instead of caving in to pressure from above? Just because someone outranks you doesn't mean that they're right! Is it true that a "spine-ectomy" is required upon promotion here? It seems so.

You may possess many fine leadership traits, but I don't see any evidence of them in the way you're leading our team. It's a good thing the economy sucks, or I'd be out of here! But that's changing, so someday soon you might be seeing another side of me -- my backside as I walk out the door.

Dreading every Sunday evening,

- a Disillusioned Employee who used to care

An employee's direct manager has the greatest influence on their level of job satisfaction.

Long ago Gallup Research found that an employee's direct manager has the greatest influence on their level of job satisfaction. In today's lingo that's called "employee engagement," and from the pathetic engagement stats worldwide (~13%) we can be pretty sure that the above letter wouldn't be a rare occurrence in the "Read My Mind" email world. If you're a manager, think about how you appear to your people. Are they your top priority? Employees know what's important to a manager by watching where they spend their time and their money. Show them that they truly are your company's most important asset by spending time with them building trusting relationships, the foundation of great results in teams.

Next consider this email from a frustrated product manager:

Dear Technology-Obsessed R&D Engineer,

It's thrilling that you're incorporating state-of-the-art, leading-edge, whiz-bang features into our product, but please remember that we eventually have to sell this gadget to paying customers. I notice you have plenty of time to argue with me about what our product should be, but I sometimes wonder if you've spent even a millisecond considering what actual users might want. Have you even met a single human being who's used our past products? I have! And some of them were practically in tears because they couldn't understand how to work the damn thing. They need our product to help them do important work, but you've made it so complicated that the number one word they associate with our most recent product is "non-intuitive."

Regrettably, making the product operation easy to learn and use was a lower priority for you than making it technically super-cool. Don't worry, you'll never have to deal with the negative impact of your engineering choices. Some poor phone-jockey in our customer service department will handle that! Well, at least we won't be bothered with repeat sales or referrals from the people who do purchase our product.

At least you had fun designing it!

- an Exhausted Product Manager who wants to delight customers

Agile Teams have made great progress in better connecting product users with product makers, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The PDMA estimates that 30-45% of new products fail in the market, primarily because customers were not engaged in the product development and marketing process.

How can a world with so many bright people produce such consistently dull results? Well, maybe being a genius isn't enough.

Developing a deep understanding of our stakeholders is vital to delighting them.

The IDEO "design thinking" innovation cycle starts with a stage they call Empathize. Developing a deep understanding of our stakeholders is vital to delighting them. I've been a big supporter of user-centered design ever since I saw a customer crying in frustration over learning to use their HP GC/MS system. We can argue over features, but one real customer beats a thousand "gut feel" guesses!

Consider this email to a team member with intellectual firepower to spare:

Dear Brilliant Team Member,

I realize that you are blessed with a much higher IQ than me, and excel at many tasks that contribute to our organization's success. Believe me, I'm sincerely grateful that you're on our team, I just wish you didn't have to rub my nose in the fact that you're smarter than me on a regular basis.

Maybe you think it's okay to treat me this way because you're "right," but you sure aren't effective. It's humiliating, especially when you do it in public. Although you know pretty much everything (or at least you talk as if you do), you may have missed the research on the impact of humiliation (PDF), which actually causes brain changes in those who experience it as children. If I stood up in a meeting and kicked you in the leg I'd be acting inappropriately, so why should you be allowed to harm me just because the damage is invisible?

A lot of what I do may seem tedious or unimportant to you, but my tasks are essential to our success as well. The wheels of a car may not be as important as the engine but that engine isn't getting anywhere without them. It'd be nice if you'd stop acting like you could get to our team's destination without help from the rest of us.

Enjoy flaunting your intellect on your own time!

- a Perfectly Capable Coworker who's had enough of your bombastic shenanigans

Over the years I have developed more of an appreciation of the frustrations that truly brilliant people experience when they have to interface with normally talented human beings. Like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, they're often mystified as to why anyone objects to their behavior . . . because after all, they're right! But being right isn't the same as being effective. When I deal with gifted yet socially awkward colleagues, I sometimes develop empathy for them by imagining what they must have been like as children. Equipped with this perspective I behave with more patience while helping them to interface with the other humans on our team.

Let's not leave executives out of our email telepathy experiment! Here's one that I've wanted to write on occasion:

Dear Distant Executive,

Oh, there was a time when we really cared about this company, but you've crushed that right out of us with your repeated insensitivity to the human side of leadership. When we first joined this company we were full of hopes and dreams! We thought we were going to change the world -- at least a little. But you have proven that you're a better tyrant than leader with your unreasonable deadlines, fire drills and project death marches. Frankly I've given up trying to do anything more than survive your ridiculous demands.

Any respect that I had for you disappeared along with the dozens of people that you laid off last month. Many of these folks were my friends, and in spite of your low opinion of them, most of them were doing the best job possible given the dysfunctional work environment here. Maybe you plan on replacing them with better people, but you'll soon find out that putting fresh eggs into boiling water just produces more hard-boiled eggs. Those of us you didn't fire are updating our resumes and actively looking for other opportunities. We're not going to give you the chance to screw us over like you did our colleagues.

- an Employee who used to think what we do matters

To be fair, being an executive is a ridiculously demanding role. Even Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks who was recently ranked #54 among the top performing CEOs in the world, described the job of CEO as "difficult and lonely." And it's no surprise that executive leadership is so uninspiring when they are consistently denied honest, constructive feedback from their people. I strongly believe that we must help our executives lead in order to succeed. Don't be complicit in creating poor executive leadership. Take a risk and speak up! There are plenty more jobs out there!

Fortunately there's no such thing as an app that transcribes our thoughts directly into text. If there were we would have to disable the Send button!

Although you might feel frustrated, building trusting relationships with our colleagues requires that we treat each other in a civil manner -- even when we don't feel the other person deserves it. While I'm sometimes tempted to speak the truth as I perceive it, doing so without considering how our words might wreak havoc on our relationships is a mistake. Think it, but don't write it. And if you DO write it, for cryin' out loud, don't send it!

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides" series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2014 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.




Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Seuperb, a fresh breath of insight, reflection, and thoughtfulness in this wage slave work world. To be sure, the lost solution to business productivity...is the key to work life community!


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