The Managing-by-e-mail Menace

Larry Price
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Wednesday - August 16, 2006
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There is one truism about communication in this day and age, no matter what method you employ to get your message across: No information is innocent.

If you work in an office or government agency, you know how technology has entered the picture. We are all being bombarded with electronic communications - voice mail, video mail, hold buttons, conference calls, text messaging on cell phones, web sites and the haunting e-mail menace.

Of all the methods of communication being used in business today, probably the most harmful and least understood is e-mail. E-mail is a favorite of the office bully. These people scheme to make themselves sound more intelligent and brilliant than they really are, hide their insecurities, spread rumors and intimidate employees they supervise. This is a real problem in business and especially government, because using e-mail is actually a smart thing to do. Sending e-mail messages, even long-distance messages, doesn’t cost the company anything. And it’s faster. A manager can answer 100 requests or 100 questions in a half hour, where doing it by mail or in writing would take days.

Managing by modem, or said another way, managing by e-mail is out of control in Hawaii. On the surface it appears to be a form of technological laziness. It’s more serious than that, because no information is innocent. There is strong and convincing evidence that managing by e-mail is a power trip of the highest magnitude. The reason is simple. People who are high in power are often oblivious to people who have less power (Gruenfeld, Keltner, & Anderson, 1998). The theory is that people in power have little or no reason to pay any real attention to those who are less powerful.

The unintended consequence of this pattern of behavior is these managers tend to be less accurate about situations going on in their own office. Rather than face-to-face communication to get their points of view across, they hide behind their computer screens and e-mail tactless and emotionally draining hearsay. One thing is for sure: The practice of e-mailing in the workplace has quadrupled the use of rumors and innuendo to increase their power and uncertainty. And in many cases there is a real question whether or not communicating by e-mail is a legitimate form of power or not. Most unholy coalitions that are formed in-house flourish when a department or agency is managed by e-mail. The reason it is not legitimate is because it violates the chain of command, and employees save e-mail messages to prove harassment and discrimination. A team cannot thrive on e-mail leadership.

Of course, this will be considered by many to be old-fashioned or outdated, but when you consider at least 80 percent of communication is non-verbal, it’s a problem worth considering. Depending on computers is fine. However, computers have no compassion or emotion for employees who have less power. What modern-day managers have created unwittingly is a morale-busting, network-generated nightmare.

There is a science to making e-mails more humanistic. The research shows that using emoticons smile serve as non-verbal communication in the message.

But while e-mail may be quick, direct and to the point, it is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Hostile e-mailing should be discouraged whenever and wherever people run a business or governmental office.

Of course, the luxury of face-to-face communication is not always possible, and people resort to using the telephone. Leaving a message on an answering service can be tricky, but still not as bad as a lethal e-mail sitting in an employee’s computer.

And while technology tries to replace the dynamics of face-to-face interaction, it will continue to fall short, because no information is innocent.

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