Email Penalty #3 – Illegal Motion

About 5 years ago at Synopsys, I set up an internal email alias so that everybody working with one of our top customers, Qualcomm, could communicate important information to the entire team. All get on the same page. Make sure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. Make sure we were communicating the same data and recommendations. Account managers … applications engineers … consultants … R&D … all working as one well oiled machine. I must say, it was a great idea … on paper.

One morning, after driving down to the San Diego office, I hopped onto a 10 AM conference call and logged into my email. As I watched my Inbox load, I noticed that there were about half a dozen messages sent that morning back and forth between two individuals who reported to me on the Qualcomm team. All regarding the same subject. Each one sent less than 5 minutes after the previous email.

As I settled into the conference call, I took a look at the latest email in the thread to get a sense of what was going on. Apparently, there was a disagreement between two members of our team as to the correct approach to addressing some methodology issue.  That’s fine.  People disagree.  But this was different.

Have you ever been at a party and a couple starts arguing in front of everyone?  At first you ignore it and make believe you’re not aware.  But then the tone gets angrier and the language gets personal and the voices get louder. Until you can’t ignore it and everybody stops what they are doing to watch in embarrassment what is happening in public that should have been private.

That’s exactly what was happening on this email thread.  As emails 7, 8, and 9 came in, the tone got angrier and the language got personal and the voices got LOUDER. And thanks to the email alias I had set up, there were now about 25 other people watching this “couples spat”.

I had to stop this, but I was stuck on this damn conference call !!!

Forget about the actual issue. This was now a matter of saving these two individuals from the ridicule of others on that email alias that were witnessing this boxing match. I sent urgent emails to the two individuals asking them to stop the emails and that I’d speak to them at 11 AM.

Email #10. #11. #12.

Mercifully, the call ended a little early and I was able to reach the consultants on their cell phones. One of the individuals was a contrarian, so from my previous post on the subject you know that:

1. If everyone else wants to take road A, he wants to take road B.
2. If everyone else wants to take road B, he wants to take road C.
3. If you’ve got a plan, he’ll tell you why it won’t work.
4. Once he takes a stand on an issue, he’ll never give up.
5. He doesn’t really care what others think about him.
6. Every battle is worth fighting … to the death.

Bottom line, he thought there was nothing wrong with “having it out” over email with everyone else copied.  In fact, this was good documentation since everybody on the team could now see the rationale of how this decision was arrived at. He was just trying to get to the right answer and can’t be bothered about having to worry about other people’s feelings.

The other individual just couldn’t resist replying to the emails since they came so fast. And he totally forgot that everyone else was being copied. He was pretty embarrassed.

In the end, the damage to these individual’s reputations was not that bad. As it turns out, the one individual already had a reputation as a hothead and contrarian and the other was more the victim than the aggressor. Still, I overheard comments in the office that day about this “tiff” and, in the end, the issue was not really addressed.

The morale of this story is that there are two rules:

1) If it takes more than 3 or 4 emails back and forth, then pick up the phone or walk over to the other person’s office. Email is a very inefficient and slow way to have a discussion or solve a problem compared to good old fashioned talking about it. Still, sometimes, and this was apparently one of those times, people just find the allure of the quick email response too appealing to resist.

2) If you break rule #1, don’t be stupid enough to copy everybody else.

harry the ASIC guy

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2 Responses to “Email Penalty #3 – Illegal Motion”

  1. Mike Demler says:

    Hello Harry,

    I am very happy to see that you are writing about one of my favorite topics – the misuse and abuse of email. During my MBA work two years ago, I had an opportunity to do research on this topic during a course on Organizational Communications. One of the more interesting references I found was this:

    A 5-step process to use in situations where conflict escalation could occur
    [From Grandgenett & Grandgenett (2001)]. To construct e-mail for collaborative problem solving, they recommend following these 5-steps, using each question as a guide to constructing effective e-mail:
    1. What is the problem? – keep to a single major issue.
    2. What makes it a problem? – explain unemotionally.
    3. What can be done? – suggest options.
    4. What should be done? – say which option is preferable.
    5. What will be done? – provide a bottom line, professionally stated, of what will or must be done.

    If you are interested, you can check out a complete summary of my research at my project website: “The Impact of Globalization and Communications Technology on Conflict Management”

    In my research, I also found this site that you might find interesting: “Email Happens”

    Mike Demler

  2. harry says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for pointing out these other resources and your MBA work. Folks like you and me who communicate for a living must always be careful what we write and how we write it, since 80% of the non-verbal communication is missing.



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