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Subject: Constructive Confrontation & Email Etiquette

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From: Kirsten
Sent: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 2012 7:34 AM

You were sent a passive aggressive email from Jessica in finance. You don’t get along with Jessica, and she’s copied your colleagues and boss on the email. You feel like her message undermines your professional opinion, and this isn’t the first time Jessica has sent an email to you like this and CC’d your team.

You read the email once and you’re shocked. You read it twice and you’re angry. You read it a third time and you’re scathing. You don’t want to appear weak-willed, like you can’t stand your own ground, or give the impression that you are uninformed and don’t know what you’re talking about.

Your instinct is to “reply all” with a clever and equally passive aggressive rebuttal.  So you do.

Situations like the one above have happened to most of us, if not all. It usually begins when one person sends an email that seems to criticize (rather than offer constructive feedback), and a team of people (who are not necessarily involved or on a “need to know” basis) are CC’d. From a professional standpoint, you don’t want to lose face with your colleagues and/or team. Instead, it’s important that you maintain and continue to build your reputation—to show that you’re knowledgeable, reliable, and consistent—especially as a new hire.

So, how should someone respond to a situation like the one described above? The short answer: in two parts. Read on for the longer answer…

1)      Don’t hit “reply all.” Follow mom’s advice and “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

  1. Why? In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to focus on what the sender is trying to communicate. He/she may have important points, and the message can be lost in passive aggressive email.

  2. What should you do? Get worked up…it’s okay, we’re only human. Let all of your feelings out on paper, in an email, or in a text, and(!) DON’T hit send. (Best practice: Remove everyone from the ‘To’ and ‘CC’ fields, just in case you accidentally do end up hitting Send.) Why? It is therapeutic to say how you really feel, but counter-productive to send an email riddled with personal feelings and in an unprofessional tone. A message drafted in the heat of the moment will likely contain a similar tone to the first email (in the above case, passive aggressive), and your response will fall on deaf ears and appear unprofessional to your colleagues. Instead, write up a mock email you never plan to send or take a break to blow off some steam. Then, try to revisit the email and remove your personal feelings from the situation and genuinely seek to understand his/her main point.

2)      Speak to the (original) email sender in person OR offline (i.e. no digital communication like instant messaging).

  1. Why? Bad news and/or confrontational situations should always be handled in person/offline in a neutral setting. There is less room for miscommunication when you can see and hear the other person.

  2. What should you do?

i.     Set the scene. Choose a location that is neutral and has power balance (good examples: the café, a conference room, etc. Bad examples: your office or the other person’s office, somewhere where there’s a sense of ‘home turf’). And, if you can’t meet the other person face-to-face, make a phone call.

ii.     Come prepared with items you want to discuss and stick to the agenda. During a conversation, it can be easy to get side-tracked by other items bothering you, and derail your good willed meeting. The final result? A meeting full of heated debate and no resolution.

iii.     Seek to understand. Begin conversation by asking questions and genuinely listening to his/her response (and fight the urge to interrupt!). It’s important to remind ourselves that each person has his/her own way of looking at situations and dealing with things. Listen and you’ll learn.

iv.     Come to a resolution. Remind yourself that no one likes to lose, so don’t go into a meeting (guns blazing) with an intention to “win” an argument. Why? Because every time there is a “winner” there is a “loser”. Sure, one (maybe even two) interactions with said person could result in you “winning,” but more often than not he/she will remember (and channel) his/her feelings of resentment or anger, and over time it will work against you. NOTE: it’s much easier to work with someone who likes you and ask him/her for their support than to work with someone who is against you.

From my experience as an engineer, I’ll admit is easy to get wrapped up in the mechanics of how a technology works, and neglect the social aspect of working on a team.  I mean, who cares about “constructive confrontation” and “email etiquette” when we’re trying to deliver a new technology in two months?  The reality is successful groups are, more often than not, made from individuals who work well together.  (Note: that is a loaded statement.  What I mean is: the social dynamics of a group matter—everything from feeling like my ideas are valued and feedback is given in a supportive (i.e. non-hostile) environment to being able to rely on other people for their expertise and input.  And(!) when things go wrong (as they so often do), there is a constructive and consistent approach to handle sticky situations.  Why?) If I haven’t made it clear by now, it can be most simply put: people perform better with people they like. (And if you and I didn’t get along on a project that happened five years ago and you didn’t like me then, trust me, you’ll remember.)