Successful Supervisor 72 Didn’t You Read My E-mail?

April 7, 2018

My work with supervisors often focuses on communication. Reason: Poor communication is the #1 complaint in most employee satisfaction surveys. Habitually, communication has been a major bone of contention in organizations.

Even though communication tools have morphed into all kinds of wonderful technologies, the problem is still there and even is worse today because many managers tend to rely too much on electronic means to communicate information.

For the past decade, the majority of workers say they need to hear information 3-5 times before they are likely to believe it. The implication is that the bar has been raised on the number of times supervisors need to communicate a consistent message before people are likely to internalize it.

The sad truth is that many supervisors put information in an e-mail and honestly believe they have communicated to people. Let’s examine some of the reasons this opinion is incorrect.

People rarely read long and complex e-mails

Supervisors who put out technically well-worded messages have a vision that the employees will read every word and fully absorb all the points. Hogwash! If it takes more than about 30 seconds to read a note, most people will only skim it for the general topic and miss parts of the message.

If a manager puts out a note that is 3 pages long and takes 15 minutes to read, I suspect not 2 in 10 people are going to internalize the meaning. In fact, when most people open a note and see that the text goes “over the horizon” (beyond the first page), they either delete the note without reading it or close the note and leave it in the inbox for a more convenient time.

Naturally, a more convenient time does not surface, so the note is allowed to mold in the inbox like last week’s opened cheese in the refrigerator. Eventually it is thrown out in some kind of purge when the stench becomes too much to bear.

Written information needs to be augmented with verbal enhancements

The written e-mail should contain simply an outline of the salient points. True meaning should be obtained by reinforcing the key points in other forms of communication. This would also include the opportunity for personal involvement or at least dialog, so people can ponder the meaning and impact. Questions for clarification will enhance understanding.

Important conceptual topics need a third exposure (and maybe a fourth)

Some form of summary hand out, YouTube video, voicemail, text, Skype, conference call, newsletter, or podcast should be used to solidify the information. If action is required, this is a critical step that is often not highlighted. The supervisor assumes everyone got the message by an initial e-mail and is astounded that not one of his direct reports took the action he requested.

Formatting is really important

E-mail notes should be as short and easy to digest as possible. Aim to have the message internalized at a glance and with only 15-30 seconds of attention. Contrast the two notes below to see which one would be more likely to be followed by the sales force.

Example of a poorly formatted and wordy note:

I wanted to inform you all that the financial trend for this quarter is not looking good. In order to meet our goals, I believe we must enhance our sales push, especially in the South East Region and in the West. Those two regions are lagging behind at the moment, but I am sure we can catch up before the end of the quarter. Let’s increase the advertising in the local paper so that we get more buzz about the new product. The increased exposure will help now and also in the next quarter. Advertising has a way of building up sales equity. Also, I am cancelling our monthly meeting at headquarters in order to keep the sales force in the field as much as possible. This means you can give your full attention to making customer calls. I am available to travel to the regions next week if you would like to have me meet face to face with your customers. I look forward to celebrating a great success when we have our Fall Sales Meeting. Thank you very much for your extra effort at this critical time for our company… Jake Alsop: Sales Manager, Domestic

Improved format of the same content:

Let’s look forward to celebrating success at the Fall Sales Meeting. Since we are currently behind the pace (particularly in the South East and Western regions) I am asking for the following:
• Increase newspaper advertising to improve exposure
• Stay in the field this month; we’ll skip the meeting
• Request my help with customer presentations if you want it
Thanks…Jake

The second note would be far more likely to be read and internalized. When the sales force opens up the first note, they would see an unformatted block of text that is a burden to wade through. There are no paragraph breaks to give the eyes a rest between concepts.

It contains several instructions amid redundant platitudes and drivel. The second note can be internalized at a glance, and it would be far more likely to produce results. Note the use of bullets eliminates wordy construction.

Use the “Golden Rule” for writing e-mails; “Write notes that you would enjoy receiving,” and utilize many different forms of communication rather than relying on just e-mail.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


5 Rules to End Hurtful Jokes

March 5, 2016

Have you ever been hurt by a joke, even though it was offered in jest? I was having an online conversation in a class I am teaching about teams at work.

The discussion was relative to having online messages misinterpreted. Clearly we have all experienced this uncomfortable situation more than once.

I got so fascinated about this topic that I wrote a book on it a few years ago.

One student brought up a situation that is common in person as well as online, but the damage done online is usually much larger. This is when a person tries to rib another person with a joke, but the meaning on the part of the receiver is taken literally.

The writer is astonished when the reader takes umbrage at the barb. The writer says, “but I was only joking.”

When people say things in jest, there is usually an element of truth in them. Jokes are often just distortions of reality; that is what makes them humorous. The problem occurs when we make a joke where the punch line puts down another person.

This is so common you probably witness it a dozen times a day or more, and it hardly registers because it is ubiquitous. If you are listening for it, you will hear it often.

Unfortunately, when the joke is documented in online exchanges, there isn’t the opportunity for the writer to let the other person know through body language that the barb is totally in jest.

Actually, even in person there is usually a part of the barb that is for real. Online, the danger is magnified for two reasons,

1) the person cannot see the facial expression and emoticons often are misinterpreted as well, and

2) e-mails are permanent, so the person can read and re-read the joke. It becomes more menacing with each iteration.

The antidote for this common problem is to establish five behavioral norms in your work group as follows:

1. We will not make jokes in any forum at another person’s expense.

2. We will praise in public or online but offer constructive criticism face to face in private.

3. When there is a disconnect in communication, we will always assume the best intent and check it out.

4. If something in an e-mail seems upsetting, it is up to the person who is upset to meet face to face with the other person as soon as possible.

5. We will call each other out politely if we see violations of these rules.

These five rules are not difficult, but it does take some training and resolve to get all people in a population to comply with them.

It helps to get firm agreement among the entire group and to post the rules in the team meeting area. If you can get people to actually follow the five rules above, it will change the entire complexion of the work group.

If all this sounds like common sense, it is. Too bad it is not common practice in many organizations.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


The Virality of Trust

January 17, 2015

SynapseI wrote an article a while ago about whether trust can scale. My conclusion was that trust does scale because it is measurable and has properties where it can grow or shrink.

The ensuing discussions between two of my good friends brought out an important nuance. Both Bob Vanourek and Fred Dewey came back with the concept that while trust can expand and contract based on what is going on, it is not linear at all.

A small increase in trust due to an action will tend to grow exponentially as the news spreads through cyberspace. Actions that build trust will become more powerful as a result of the viral nature of information.

Of course, the same phenomenon happens on the negative side. If a leader does something that has a damping effect on trust, that negative impact will become more hurtful as the information spreads virally.

So while the nature of trust is that it does scale, we need to be constantly aware of a “hockey-stick” situation, where one small misstep magnifies in time and in space.

I think this observation has always been true, but as we trend toward a greater percentage of information being conveyed virtually, the leverage increases.

There is an opportunity to intervene that may be helpful. When something unfortunate is done, and it is picked up on the social networks, the person who committed the sin is usually aware of the bad press. It is a kind of moment of truth where the damage is either made much worse or can be muted somewhat. This public relations problem can make or break a person’s reputation.

Let’s take a case as an example and dissect the likely outcomes. Suppose a CEO puts out a note to the senior managers that refers to some problem (unnamed) employees as “knuckleheads.”

One of the managers gets a chuckle out of the wording and elects to pass it along to a couple underlings as a joke. One of the underlings is familiar with a person who has been under scrutiny for some attendance problems. He writes a note to that person attaching the CEO’s message and asks “Wonder if you are one of the knuckleheads?”

That individual sends it out to everybody in his group, and the cascade is on. Within an hour, the entire organization knows the CEO considers some of the employees to be “knuckleheads.”

The CEO will quickly become aware, through feedback, that his note is out all over the plant. Let’s look at a few possible approaches for the CEO:

1. He can call a quick meeting with his senior managers to try to find out who leaked the information. That “Witch hunt” reaction is unfortunately pretty common, when the real witch was actually the CEO.

2. He can ignore the situation and let people calm down over time. That “head in the sand” approach is also a common ploy that only feeds the rumors of clueless leaders.

3. A better approach might be a humble apology where he admits to what is already obvious and indicates that his choice of words was inappropriate. Rather than try to justify what is already known (like… “we are under extreme pressure right now”), he indicates sincere regret and a desire to not repeat it.

You be the judge of the outcomes under these scenarios. Perhaps you can think of other methods of handling the situation.

Undoubtedly the best cure would be prevention where the CEO would not send a note like that in the first place.

Even more important, would be to have a CEO who does not even think in terms where he or she has to guard his wording so the spin comes out right. If your private thoughts show the proper level of respect and trust, then you do not have to scrub your communications. You are free to be authentic.

Of course this example was a small situation that was contained within one specific organization. Many times people get into trouble when they communicate inappropriate things about people outside the organization, like customers, insurance companies, the government, law enforcement, or any number of other situations.

These lapses can lead to embarrassment, loss of one’s job, jail time, or worse. When people compromise trust in any type of communication, there is no telling how much damage will ensue.

With the growing percentage of communication happening in the online environment, it is time to redouble efforts to phrase things correctly at the start and avoid embarrassing slips. It is also important to check our personal self talk to ensure our attitudes reflect a trustworthy rather than duplicitous person.


12 Ways to Improve Online Communication

April 19, 2013

Something wrong with my pcOverarching consideration: Use the right mode of communication – often e-mail or texting are not the right ways to communicate a particular message.

1. Do not treat online notes like a conversation. In normal conversation we use the feedback of body language to modify our message, pace, tone, and emphasis in order to stay out of trouble. In e-mail or in texting, we do not have this real-time feedback.

2. Keep messages short. A good e-mail or text should take only 15-30 seconds to read (texts as little as 2-3 seconds) and absorb. Less is more in online communication. Try to have the entire message fit onto the first screen. When a messages goes “over the horizon,” the reader does not know how long it is, which creates a psychological block.

3. Establish the right tone upfront. Online messages have a momentum. If you start on the wrong foot, you will have a difficult time connecting. The “Subject” line and the first three words of a note establish the tone.

4. Remember the permanent nature of e-mails. Using e-mail to praise helps people remember the kind words. Using e-mail to be critical is usually a bad idea because people will re-read the note many times.

5. Keep your objective in mind. Establish a clear objective of how you want the reader to react to your note. For sensitive notes, write the objective down. When proofreading your note, check to see if your intended reaction is likely to happen. If not, reword the note.

6. Do not write notes when you are not yourself. This sounds simple, but it is really much more difficult than meets the eye. Learn the techniques to avoid this problem.

7. Avoid “online grenade” battles. Do not take the bait. Simply do not respond to edgy note in kind. Change the venue to be more effective.

8. Be careful with use of pronouns in notes. Pronouns establish the tone. The most dangerous pronoun in an online note is “you.”

9. Avoid using “absolutes.” Avoid words such as: never, always, impossible, or cannot. Soften the absolutes if you want to be more credible online.

10. Avoid sarcasm. Humor at the expense of another person will come back to haunt you.

11. Learn techniques to keep your e-mail inbox clean (down to zero notes each day) so you are highly responsive when needed. Adopting proper distribution rules in your organization will cut e-mail traffic by more than 30% instantly.

12. Understand the rules for writing challenging notes so you always get the result you want rather than create a need for damage control.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work in an environment unhampered by the problems of poor online communication. This takes some education and a customized set of rules for your unique environment, but the effort is well worth it.

• Employees are not consumed with trying to sort out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Your coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build rather than destroy trust.

For leaders and managers, once you learn the essentials of e-body language, a whole new world of communication emerges. You will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and have a better sense of how your messages are interpreted by others. You will understand the secret code that is written “between the lines” of all messages and enhance the quality of online communications in your sphere of influence.

Training in this skill area does not require months of struggling with hidden gremlins. While employees often push back on productivity improvement or OD training, they welcome this topic enthusiastically because it improves their quality of work life instantly. Four hours of training and a set of rules can change a lifetime of bad habits.


9 Ways to Improve Online Communication

October 28, 2012

Are you becoming a digital junkie? Between e-mail, texting, or social networking, the nature of communication is becoming ever more digital and less verbal. With the brevity and acronyms used in Twitter messages, we may be heading back toward some form of cave drawings to communicate. At least if we are going to be communicating online all the time, we should all do it as skillfully at it as possible.

The rules for communicating efficiently and effectively online are not complex; unfortunately many people do not remember to use the rules on a daily basis. Here are nine specific points that can improve your communication online:

1. Understand online text is different from conversation – When we use the old fashioned method of communicating (with the mouth and ears) we have the opportunity to modify everything we say, the pace, the tone, the content, the inflection, everything, based on the visual feedback we are getting real time from the other person. Instantaneous feedback is not in play with digital communication, so the potential to make corrections and stay out of trouble is just not there.

2. Use the right mode of communication – For many applications, a digital note may be the expedient way to communicate, but it may well not be the best way. Consider whether having a face-to-face discussion or a phone call might be the more efficient route in the long run. Having your cell phone or ipad in your hand is not a reason to use the wrong mode of communication for important notes.

3. Get the right tone at the start – In any message, even a tweet, you need to set the tone at the very start so the other person understands your frame of reference. If not, the message can be read in a way that is totally opposite to your intention. With longer e-mail messages, this is a critical element.

4. Don’t play one upmanship – Escalating e-mails in an organizational context are familiar long strings of increasing rancor and expanding distribution. I call these diatribes “e-grenade battles.” The antidote here is to refrain from taking the bait. Simply do not reply in kind to a message that gets under your skin. Instead, pick up the phone or walk down the hall to clear up any misunderstanding.

5. Keep the content brief – Twitter helps us in that regard, but the side effect is that sometimes the true intent can be lost in the extreme brevity. With social networking and e-mail, less is more, because people do not take the time to wade through mountains of text to get the meat.

6. Avoid Absolutes – If I write that you are “always late for meetings,” it is not likely an accurate statement. “You never call me,” is usually proven to be incorrect. Even if an absolute word is technically correct, it is an accusatory term that sets up a negative vibe in the mind of the reader who will try to prove the writer is incorrect.

7. Read before sending – Depending on the gravity of the message, you should reread it at least twice before sending. With social networking this is also true. Make sure you attempt to put yourself in the place of the reader. Think how the information might be misinterpreted, and make sure you spell things correctly, at least most of the time.

8. Recognize you cannot get them back – Most digital messages are permanent data. They do not atrophy with time like verbal communication does. You can apologize all you want, but the other person can demonstrate that you said this or that. Make sure you write what you mean to communicate. Emails never go away.

9. Understand you lose control of the distribution – Once you push the send button, it is all over. You cannot get the message back or delete it. It is out there for the intended recipient and potentially any other person in the world to view. That includes your harshest critics or worst enemies!

There are numerous other ways to improve digital communication, but if you keep these nine concepts firmly in your mind, you will have a much more fruitful interface with other people online in the long run.


Trust Avoids Miscommunication – Especially Online

September 18, 2011

Communication problems in e-mail are not hard to find. I often ask my students to cite an example of when they wrote something online that got an unexpected and unhappy reaction. I have yet to meet a student that cannot think of at least one major gaffe brought about by words online without being able to see the body language.

There are many antidotes to this problem. One that I find particularly effective is to have high trust. When people know each other and trust each other, the things that could set off hurt feelings, or e-grenade battles are often resolved quickly with little effort. The following story is a great example of how trust can prevent damaging misunderstandings.

Recently, an e-mail exchange between some Board members for a local professional organization got off track. Sally had been doing a wonderful job with her responsibilities as the VP of Membership. The roster had grown by about 25% in the previous year, and we were all praising her for a job well done. Sally took the opportunity to bring a prospective new BOD member named Sharon to the meeting. All of the existing BOD members were happy to welcome Sharon to the group since her expertise could fill a vacancy we had on the BOD.

After the meeting, Sally wrote an e-mail to the group thanking all of us for welcoming Sharon to the group so warmly. Sally’s main message was “thank you.” Tom, the VP of Technology wrote back to Sally the following message. “No…Thank You!”

When I read Tom’s note, I thought how odd he would be saying “No Thank you” to a critical new resource that would actually help spell him from trying to cover for the vacant player. I looked at the message again, because knowing and trusting Tom, I knew he could not have really meant it. Then, I noticed the ellipsis mark (three periods) between “No” and “Thank you.” The ellipsis mark indicates that some information was left out for brevity. It took only a few seconds to determine that Tom’s real message to Sally was, “Not at all Sally…We should be thanking you!” He had just left out the extra words to be efficient.

When I asked Sally about the answer, she said that her reaction at first was also highly negative. Then, as with me, she quickly figured out Tom’s true meaning.

The point of this story is that if any of us did not know and trust Tom, it would have been very easy to misconstrue his meaning. That could have resulted in a lot of damage control with Sally and especially with Sharon, the new person on the BOD. It was that level of trust that allowed us to get by a possible problem without a hiccup. Think about all the other less obvious communication issues that are prevented when trust exists within a group.


But I Sent an E-mail on that Last Week

July 16, 2011

My work on leadership development often focuses on communication. Reason: Poor communication is the #1 complaint in most employee satisfaction surveys. As far back as World War II communication has been a major bone of contention in organizations. Even though communication tools have morphed into all kinds of wonderful technologies, the problem is still there and even is worse today because many managers tend to rely too much on e-mail to communicate information.

In the 2011 Trust Barometer, Richard Edelman measured that about 60% of workers say they need to hear information about a company 3-5 times before they are likely to believe it. The implication is that the bar has been raised on the number of times managers need to communicate a consistent message before people are likely to internalize it.

The sad truth is that many managers put information in an e-mail and honestly believe they have communicated to people. Let’s examine some of the reasons this opinion is incorrect.

People rarely read long and complex e-mails

Managers who put out technically well-worded messages have a vision that the employees will hang onto every word and absorb all the careful “spin” that has been crafted into the verbiage. Hogwash! If it takes more than about 30 seconds to read a note, most people will only skim it for the general topic and assume they understand the message. If a manager puts out a note that is 3 pages long and takes 15 minutes to read, I suspect not 1 in 10 people are going to internalize the meaning. In fact, when most people open a note and see that the text goes “over the horizon” beyond the first page, they either delete the note without reading it or close the note and leave it in the inbox for a more convenient time. Naturally, a more convenient time does not surface, so the note is allowed to mold in the inbox like last week’s opened cheese in the refrigerator. Eventually it is thrown out in some kind of purge when the stench becomes too much to bear.

Written information needs to be augmented with verbal enhancements

The written e-mail should contain simply an outline of the salient points. True meaning should be obtained by reinforcing the key points face to face. This would also include the opportunity for personal involvement or at least dialog, so people can ponder the meaning and impact. Questions for clarification will enhance understanding.

Important conceptual topics need a third exposure (and maybe a fourth)

Some form of summary hand out, YouTube video, voicemail, text, Skype, conference call, newsletter, or podcast should be used to solidify the information. If action is required, this is a critical step that is often neglected. The boss assumes everyone got the message by an initial e-mail and is astounded that not one of his direct reports took the action he requested.

Formatting is really important

E-mail notes should be as short and easy to digest as possible. Aim to have the message internalized at a glance and with only 15-30 seconds of attention. Contrast the two notes below to see which one would be more likely to be followed by the sales force.

Example of a poorly formatted and wordy note:

I wanted to inform you all that the financial trend for this quarter is not looking good. In order to meet our goals, I believe we must enhance our sales push, especially in the South East Region and in the West. Those two regions are lagging behind at the moment, but I am sure we can catch up before the end of the quarter. Let’s increase the advertising in the local paper so that we get more buzz about the new product. The increased exposure will help now and also in the next quarter. Advertising has a way of building up sales equity. Also, I am cancelling our monthly meeting at headquarters in order to keep the sales force in the field as much as possible. This means you can give your full attention to making customer calls. I am available to travel to the regions next week if you would like to have me meet face to face with your customers. I look forward to celebrating a great success when we have our Fall Sales Meeting. Thank you very much for your extra effort at this critical time for our company… Jake Alsop

Improved format:

Let’s look forward to celebrating success at the Fall Sales Meeting. Since we are currently behind the pace (particularly in the South East and Western regions) I am asking for the following:
• Increase newspaper advertising to improve exposure
• Stay in the field this month; we will skip the meeting
• Request my help with customer presentations if you want it
Thanks…Jake

The second note would be far more likely to be read and internalized. When the sales force opens up the first note, they would see an unformatted block of text that is a burden to wade through. There are no paragraph breaks to give the eyes a rest between concepts. It contains several instructions amid redundant platitudes and drivel. The second note can be internalized at a glance, and it would be far more likely to produce results. Note the use of bullets eliminates wordy construction. Use the “Golden Rule” for writing e-mails; “Write notes that you would enjoy receiving,” and utilize many different forms of communication rather than relying on just e-mail.