I once was a passive-aggressive person who used email to avoid difficult issues or people. Fortunately, I’ve succeeded in curtailing this behavior in recent years. Yet I continue to observe with alarm how pervasive it is in the workplace and its deleterious effect on relationships, productivity, and the overall welfare of organizations themselves.
I’ve observed that email serves quite nicely the needs of the passive aggressive individual. It enables the sender to convey information while avoiding the need to deal with concomitant feelings and emotions that may be jeopardizing their effectiveness. In the process, I’ve seen email used repeatedly by highly educated people to avoid confrontation and difficult conversations, or to chastise, with their organizational culture offering little by way of impetus to change such behavior.
We all need to pause before we send emails on difficult, complex, and/or emotionally charged issues. That tool may not be the most appropriate one to use for the issue at hand. More important, we need to foster organizational cultures that place a premium on directness and face-to-face communication whenever possible grounded in truly genuine interpersonal relationships that inevitably can accommodate a range of emotions.
I’m not suggesting that organizations condone yelling, screaming, swearing, or other violent behavior in the name of being direct. I’ve worked in places that have done so, and they’ve been extremely unpleasant. Under no circumstances is it appropriate to lose control of one’s emotions. Yet even the risk of doing so should not obviate the need for management to help employees cultivate their emotional intelligence and along with it the skill and willingness to communicate directly in all kinds of circumstances. Anything short of such an effort jeopardizes relationships with key stakeholders. After all, if we cannot communicate directly and honestly, face to face, with the person in the office or cubicle next to us, how can we possibly handle the even more challenging encounters we are likely to find when we interact with customers, funders, and others? And how can we pursue our daily work with even an iota of doubt about the intentions of our colleagues, who we must rely upon to do our jobs?
Yes, I know, what I’m describing appears to be a dreamland, and remains elusive despite the best of intentions. So some might consider my plea a fool’s errand at best. Yet what are the alternatives? If my experience alone is a guide, I’ve seen how people use email as a way to berate, avoid, and disengage — and it’s to their distinct disadvantage and, sadly, the organizations that employ them as well. I can no longer condone for a second this condition, and I suspect many feel similarly.