Improving Electronic Communication 1

February 20, 2019

Many of us now view electronic communication (email or texting) casually. We just type information as if we were chatting with someone in the hallway. This is potentially a big mistake.

When we communicate verbally, most information is conveyed through body language and voice inflection; only a small fraction of information is conveyed by the actual words. In electronic communication, all we have are the words as clues to decode information accurately, so the challenge is significant.

Imagine the advantage if we could read “ebody language.” We could understand the intent of notes by interpreting meaning in between the words on the screen. That skill would be important, as the percentage of electronic communications continues to rise. There is ample “body language,” and even voice inflection, available in electronic communications—if we know how to read the signals.

Unfortunately, most people have no training in reading electronic body language. They rely on the written words to impute meaning, which is like trying to paint a full-color picture using only red paint. They can’t blend different colors into subtle shades that reflect the richness of the scene.

Working with just the words means that sometimes people become offended when no offense was intended.

To read between the lines of text online, we have to pay attention to the signals and integrate them into a pattern that yields more information than the words alone. For example, if we know what to look for, the first few words on a message often give vital clues to the tone of the note.

The difference between “Hi Mary,” and “So Mary,” is huge if you are Mary. Keep an eye out for the tone, timing, and tension in your electronic communications.


Tone builds additional meaning into notes in dozens of ways. Emoticons and acronyms are two well-known methods that should be used sparingly and only in casual communications.

Qualifying conjunctions, such as the word “but,” often convey the opposite meaning from the literal words of a note: “We loved your class, but it is good to have it completed.” The conjunction becomes an “eraser word” because people pay more attention to what comes after the “but.”

Other kinds of expressions might also convey the opposite meaning. For example, “no offense” usually means the writer is expecting you may take offense. Some words or phrases tend to inflame people if not managed carefully. “Let me make it perfectly clear” is a good example.

Much of the tone of a note is contained in pronouns. “You” is the most commonly misused pronoun. “You never let me finish my work” is an example. The reader interprets this as an accusation or lecture and becomes defensive. Whenever starting a sentence with “you,” check to see if it might send a wrong signal.

Overuse of the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” make the writer sound parochial or egotistical.

Too much emphasis on “we” and “they” will signal a competitive atmosphere where silos inhibit good communication and cooperation.

To maintain credibility, avoid using absolutes. “She has never done anything to help us” is easily proven incorrect.

Try to avoid phrases with double meanings, one of which is sarcastic: “His diatribe at the meeting shows what an emotionally intelligent leader he is.” Sarcasm is often disguised as humor, but it can quickly backfire with uncontrolled distributions.

Never write something in an email that you would not be willing to have anyone read, because literally anyone might receive a copy.


Timing issues with electronic communication often lead to problems. A major issue is the asynchronous nature of email and often with texting. Since people open notes at different times, one person might respond to a note that has already been superseded, leading to much confusion.

When chatting, your input may be a response to a point made several entries back, which can lead to unintended, often comical, but sometimes embarrassing exchanges.

The antidote is to be alert for misunderstandings based on when people respond to notes. Sometimes notes arrive in the inbox when readers are in an overload situation or otherwise unable to react positively.

The solution to timing issues with electronic communications is to use common sense and try to reach your reader at a time when he or she is most receptive. This advice is more critical when emotions are high.


Tension and interpersonal conflict often leave a bloody trail in electronic correspondence. Inappropriate outbursts of anger in texts or e-mails usually make both parties look foolish. When individuals escalate conflict in online exchanges, it becomes like a childish food fight.

The way to stop an “electronic grenade” battle is to refrain from taking the bait. Do not respond to the attack in kind. Acknowledge a difference of opinion, but do not escalate the situation. Switching to a different form of communication will help avoid a trail of embarrassing notes.

The three T’s explain some of the mechanics of e-body language, but why should organizations be vitally interested in this subject?

E-xcellence: The Corporate Case

E-xcellence offers a pragmatic and inexpensive approach to resolve some of the most frustrating issues quickly. All organizations face the challenges associated with communicating online efficiently. The solutions may appear elusive. So, by including e-xcellence as part of your vision, you gain a huge competitive advantage.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work unhampered by the problems of poor online communication.

• Employees are not consumed by sorting out important information from piles of garbage notes.

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

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build trust.

Once you learn the essentials of electronic body language, you will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and better sense how your messages are interpreted by others.

You will understand the secret code written “between the lines” of messages and enhance your online communications in your sphere of influence. Next week I will share some additional principles to keep in mind when communicating electronically.

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 600 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, or 585.392.7763

Fewer, Shorter Meetings

September 28, 2011

The ruling paradigm on meetings is that they should be scheduled for one hour. If a manager sends a note to her administrative assistant to schedule a meeting sometime this week, the assistant will instinctively assume the duration is one hour.

We come by this paradigm through convention, and it is an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Suppose the administrative person scheduled the meeting for 40 minutes. What would be the outcome? In most organizations it would mean that everyone invited to the meeting saved at least 20 minutes. As a side benefit, the 40 minutes spent at the meeting would be far more productive because the standard paradigm has been broken.

Start by challenging the need for a meeting at all. This is especially true for “standing meetings” (by this I mean the kind that happen automatically each week, not the kind where there are no chairs in the room – BTW, no chairs is a great way to encourage shorter meetings). Since standing meetings often do not have a specific agenda, they frequently degrade into “group grope” sessions.

There are numerous things that can be done to improve the time utilization at meetings, Here are nine of my favorite techniques;

  1. Suggest that the person leading the meeting be extremely mindful of the duration. After all, what we have at work is our time.
  2. Have a meeting agenda and stick to it unless the group makes a conscious decision to adjust priorities.
  3. Shock people into a realization of what is actually happening:  Set up the meeting to start at 2:17 pm and end at 2:49 pm. That would be a 33 minute meeting (if my math is correct).
  4. Put a premium on how the time is spent in meetings. Make sure the agenda is specific as to how much time will be devoted to each topic and stick to that schedule. Have a PITA assigned to keep things on track (PITA stands for Pain In The Rear).
  5. Acknowledge the need for important side issues, but do not let them derail the meeting.  Handle them efficiently or find another venue to deal with them.
  6. Start and end each meeting on time.  Become known as a stickler for this. You can be courteous and bring stragglers up to speed on what has already been accomplished, but you are really enabling them to continue the practice. It is not polite to others to arrive late for meetings. It is also not polite to attendees for the leader to extend beyond the advertised finish time.
  7. Have a set of expected behaviors for your meetings and post them. Hold each other accountable for abiding by these rules.  Here is a favorite rule of mine. It is expected that when someone feels we are spinning our wheels or not making the best use of time, he or she will give the “time out” signal to the person running the meeting (finger tips of one hand touching the palm of the other hand).  Nobody will be punished in any way for making this sign. It simply calls the question as to whether we are spending our time wisely right now.
  8. Have some time set aside in each meeting to reinforce good behavior and feel good about things that are going well. If we spend 100% of our time dealing with the bad stuff that needs to be fixed, we will never smell the roses.
  9. Obtain and use a meeting cost calculator. You can find free programs on the WEB.  Just plug in the average salary and the number of people, and the calculator lets you know how much money is being spent.  With this information visible on the screen, wordy managers find it beneficial to shut up sooner.

All these rules are common sense. It is too bad they are not common practice, because they help preserve our most critical resource: our time.

Merger Miseries 7 – What a Rip Off

October 31, 2010

This is the seventh in a series of articles on the trials and tribulations of mergers and acquisitions. This episode concerns the speed of the integration process. A typical merger or substantial organizational change normally takes the better part of a year from inception to complete integration. Many examples take much longer than that. For example, many of the large bank mergers over the past decade have taken 2-3 years to complete. During the transition time, few people in either organization are happy.

For the management, the financial staff, the rank and file employees, and even customers and suppliers, the transition period can be excruciatingly painful. People realize that there are going to be hassles and lost opportunities while the organization is distracted with the details of the consolidation. They also realize there are likely to be layoffs to reduce duplicate staff.

Waiting for the transition to be over is like taking a bandage off a scabbed-over scraped knee. You can do it slow and painful or you can rip it off and deal with the same pain more quickly. Given those two choices, most people choose to rip off the darned bandage and get it over with. Others will peel the adhesive as slowly as possible thinking it is less painful in total, but is it really?

Typically, management votes to drag out the process so individuals in the organization can “get used to” the change. They put out half-baked plans and temporary structures in an attempt to keep people from panicking while the details of the merger are being worked out. This is like a Chinese Water Torture to the people in the organization who are looking for crisp decisions and clarity of direction. Instead, they receive vague intent and lots of sideline cheering about what a wonderful job they are doing. This is total BS, and people resent it.

The other danger is that during the consolidation process, nervous employees tend to start looking around for more stable employment. Logic tells us that the most employable people (the ones with the most talent) are going to find alternate employment easier than the dregs of the organization. So, a protracted period of integration can result in the best people leaving while the slackers or poor performers end up staying. Some companies anticipate this problem and offer some kind of incentives for the best people to stay. Stock options are the usual mechanism to retain the better workers because they only have value when the organization has success down the road. The whole exodus can be mitigated if the integration is crisp and well planned in the first place.

I am not advocating making hasty and dangerous decisions in order to just get it done. Rather, I am proposing that there be intensive planning about all aspects of the consolidation before the starting gun goes off. I am proposing that the people involved in the consequences be allowed to participate in this planning process so they have an opportunity to contribute rather than sit at their desks and shake with fear. The more specific and concrete the plans are for integration the better. Then, once the consolidation is formally announced, the time to return to a fully functioning organization is much shorter. Yes, it will be painful, but the upfront work makes that pain more manageable. The planning process is rather like Novocain at the dentist. Yes there is some pain involved, but it is far more tolerable than going without it and just grinding away.