Friday, April 4, 2008

Communication - Email

I remember when I was in school one of my professors said that communication problems were the causal effect in 95 percent of the problems on the planet. Now whether that is actually true or not, experience shows that communication issues certainly are behind many of the situations we find ourselves in.

Think about this seemingly clear statement: "Bob would you pick me up at 4 at Nicole's?" And Bob--while in the room and not actively communicating (because he's watching the O's lose again) acknowledges that something was said. Later that same day when it's time to act Bob heard something more like, "Bob, pick me up at 4 at Coles." Trying to be a good husband, Bob goes to Coles and is doomed. The ensuing post-event discussion has no good outcome: Bob either has to admit he wasn't listening, needs a hearing aid, or worse--really doesn't know the difference between Nicole's and Coles.

Communication is a two way process--a sender and a receiver. But to have effective communication both the sender and receiver must acknowledge the communication and confirm the meaning of the message. Otherwise there is just a lot of noise or electrons (in the case of email) passing by each other in a disconnected manner.

Communication. We are living in an email world. Frankly, I love email. I have a Blackberry to access my email accounts (yes, plural) so I can receive and send information whenever I have time. I am no longer tied to sitting in front of a computer (desk top or laptop) in order to check email and respond to people. I love email because I can handle the communication on my schedule, unlike a phone call which usually comes when I'm right in the middle of something else and so I lose twice--once disengaging from the project I'm working to answer the phone and the second time to get into the conversation at hand. I can also think more deeply about the topic and if it is emotional I can let my emotions abate before responding.

So what's the problem? Not everyone understands that an email is an important form of communication. I receive well over 200 emails per day. Most are informational only (or advertisements for some Canadian prescription drug plan) which require nothing more than hitting the delete key. But there is a critical subset of the total which require action. At the least the receipt of these emails must be acknowledged with a quick note to say, got it and am thinking about it. Or even, call me and let's talk. Using email to lay out the agenda for a phone call or meeting makes these forms of communication even more effective.

What happens when, say, an email proposing a new idea is sent and the receiver does not acknowledge it? I'm an action oriented person. Most action oriented people I know wait a week to allow for a response. Then, if they believe the proposal is within their area of influence or responsibility the lack of communication is considered tacit approval and the idea is implemented.

Who is right and who is wrong? The receiver of the email has a responsibility to at least acknowledge the communication. It is the right thing to do. Face it--it is flat out rude not to respond at all. The leader who fails to acknowledge an email should not expect to sympathy later nor do they have any justifiable reason to be upset because the answer comes back--you were info'ed on the email, when did you send your objections? Additionally, if the leader sends objections--follow up to ensure they are received.

The bottom line is--respond to email! It is an effective form of communication which helps remove ambiguity while providing critical documentation for the future. Good leaders must be effective communicators and using email is a critical skill. There are rules of email etiquette, use them. I referenced my favorites here.

Email can save time, increase effectiveness, and provide necessary documentation for decisions! But, you must answer the mail or don't quibble about the consequences.

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