We Need to Be Better at Interpersonal Communications
I am a modern manager. I am available 24/7, and I communicate with my team (spread across 5 time zones in 3 different continents) every day, through a variety of mediums. At the same time, I am navigating corporate America, trying hard to excel all of the necessary and important projects, coaching, education, motivation and leadership that is critical in today’s work world. With all that, I have a confession to make, that I think is fully grounded in reality, truth, and helps me excel….
I loathe email.
That’s not to say I don’t use email. I check email constantly. To steal from Dr. Seuss, I check it on a plane, I check it on a train, I check it on vacation, I check it across the nation, In my car, in my bed, With Google Glass, I check it on my head, I check it over here, and over there, I check it EVERYWHERE… That is completely insane and I’ll bet it’s not any different than most of us.
My frustration with email goes back a few years– I remember working on a project, when an email came in. I know that because a pop-up window appeared in the corner of my screen, with who the email was from, the subject, and the first 3 lines of the email, accompanied by the “BRRRINGG” of a new email sound. It looked important. So I opened it up and started to work on a response. About 2/3rds of the way through that response, another email pinged in…I stopped everything and started working on a response to THAT email. Fast forward to about 7PM that night….I had 6 unfinished emails, and a project that I hadn’t gotten any work done since lunch. I wanted to make sure that would never happen again. Some companies have gone so far as to ban email in the office. I wouldn’t go that far but I can at least sympathize with their position.
It was that experience that led me to my hierarchy of communication, that is, how I prefer to communicate, how quickly I respond, and when I do/don’t use different forms of communication. I put this together, because I can’t remember anyone doing this before (probably too busy checking their email). You can modify this hierarchy as you’d like –as long as they’re yours and you stick to them, they’re correct.
My hierarchy is as follows
- Face to Face: Not always plausible, but always valuable. Your discipline is extremely important here, you are dominating the other person’s time, do not be wasteful or circumspect. The best way for people of action to get things done.
- When to Use: Wherever and whenever possible. Best way to communicate tone, urgency, and best way to build a connection with your colleagues.
- How quickly I respond: If someone comes to my desk and I’m on a phone call, I go back to their desk as soon as I’m off. If I’m writing an email or an IM, I drop it and talk to them right away. That’s not a business rule, that’s just being polite.
- Phone: My favorite email alternative. Often disarming, but never more convenient. I can be reached on the phone 24/7, and I will make the time if someone wants to engage in a substantive discussion
- When to use: I always pick up the phone when there are topics that are sensitive, important, complicated, or I’m confused or upset. Yes, I agree, that IS many things—but who hasn’t spent some ludicrous time on an email, had the person call you back because they didn’t understand it, and have a full discussion in 5 minutes?
- How quickly I respond: I try to return voice messages from people NOT trying to sell me something in 2-3 business hours, or on my first break from meetings (more on that later)
- IM/Chatter/Social Media/SMS: Love, love, love IM—text when I’m not in the office….it’s quick, dirty, and effective, and I use it all day long
- When to Use: I use IM for quick check-ins with colleagues, and to clarify topics (“Hey, do you need that complete by noon, or just COB?”). It’s a nice touch, that is assumed to be Informal, and helps define the digital water cooler. I also use Chatter (in SFDC) in place of sending an email to an entire distribution list
- How quickly I respond: Immediately, but never a substantive conversation. If I get asked a substantive question, I set up time for a call to discuss
- IM Danger: Always close out of IM when you’re on a deskshare with other people….If you’re educating them on a new process and your buddy IM’s you with some personal note…it’s not likely it’s going to be good. IM is informal—if you’re in a more formal setting, just shut it off
- Email: The floppy disk/fax machine/internal memo of the 21st century. Great for notes about organizational changes, getting data or Presentations to other people for review, Also great for avoiding taking ownership of an issue
- When to Use: When you have to get data or Presentations to other people
- When NOT to Use: When there are complex or sensitive subjects to discuss
- What to Use instead: If it’s timebound, sensitive, or important, pick up the phone. If it’s to your whole team, use Social Media. If it’s short, flip, or funny, use IM. If it’s your favorite scene from Caddyshack, send from your personal email.
- How quickly I respond: I log all of the requests I get in email in my tasks folder, and get to them when I have spare time (on the train, plane, or when I finish a 1PM meeting at 1:45Pm and have a 2 PM meeting). I use a biblical coding system, consisting of Name/Date/Time. If I see a task that shows Mike, 7/31, 8:10AM…that’s the email I go back to
- Word that should exist to shine a light on how insane email has become—egita (E-jit-ah)… Like agita (Italian for heartburn), except specifically reserved for guilt over unread email messages
- The one comment my staff can never say to me: “Didn’t you get my email?” That’s code to me for “I’m avoiding responsibility, is that okay?”
I’ve prepared a guide and decision matrix that you can use to help decide what is the best way to get your message across: