Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Avoiding Spin-Ups

Twice in the past two weeks at work, I've been on the receiving end of a not-so-cheery phone call or e-mail from someone senior to me because of something I put out in an e-mail.

In one case, it was clearly my fault. I attached an old set of instructions to something that I just didn't bother to check; as a result, the e-mail contained incorrect information about a procedure (trust me, we're not talking life or death here, but still, I'll admit that bad information has no proper place and I certainly deserved the 'correctional instruction' I received).

In the second case, I sent out a query about something in which I indicated that someone far higher than me in the hierarchy was interested in seeing a presentation, if it could be arranged. All I meant was that the person was interested in it if it could be done, certainly not that it was some sort of sudden imperative.

But both cases had a common thread -- the recipient got wildly animated and brought many others into the fray to clarify where there had been confusion. In the first case, I had my posterior chewed by a Commodore (that's just below an Admiral), and in the second case, I just got a series of very confused phone calls and e-mails from someone who I had never met and, to be frank, never needed to be involved in the situation in the first place.

I know the term "common sense" is a loaded and dangerous one, so I'll just say this -- If I got an e-mail or phone call from someone with information that I believe to be incorrect, misleading, or unclear, what I would do -- hold onto your hats here -- is get back to the person who sent it for clarification.

I might just start by asking questions like, "Are you sure that's the right way to do this? I've got something that indicates otherwise" or, in the other case, "Is this just a 'nice-to-have' sort of request, or am I being mandated to fly halfway across the world to do this?"

If either case had been handled that way -- the one where I really was at fault, or the one where I was just a bit too ambiguous in the way I worded something -- no one would have ever gotten 'spun up.'

The entire thing could have been resolved at the lowest possible level with one part 'benefit of the doubt' and one part 'common sense.'

Yes, I said it -- to me, that's common sense.

And lest this sound like a "Dear Diary" entry, it's not -- my point here is just to remind anyone reading this not to get spun up the next time they perceive that someone you work with has put out bad info. At least go to the source first and check!

** Oh, and speaking of the 'benefit of the doubt' just want to use this forum to put out to friends that my PC is down hard right now. I have no access to either e-mail account from this network so if you've sent me a yahoo or other e-mail in the past couple weeks, that's why you ain't heard back...and thanks in advance for the lack of a spin-up!**


Chris said...

I know it's not exactly the same, but the idiom that came to mind is "making a mountain out of a molehill" . . . I always liked that one, but don't find too many opportunities to use it . . .

Nick said...

Email has really changed the game when it comes to workplace dynamics. I recently had a situation where I wrote a work email to one person about a fairly benign issue. That person then went and excerpted a part of my email, and passed that on to almost a dozen other people who had no business even being involved. (I only know this because one person in that group had the decency to clue me in, like "hey, check out what this guy did". )

I think the first guy's motivation, and the motivation for so much CCing, forwarding, excepting, and "following up" over email is to create the illusion of activity and involvement.

Also, the written word is very powerful. People are far less cautious or critical of words they see in front of them, even if they have clearly been excerpted.

If I had conveyed my point to this first guy over the telephone or in person, it might not have been as bad. Sure, he could have taken something I said out of context, or misrepresented my point, but then it would be his word--his reputation--against mine. The reaction might have been, "hmmm, that doesn't sound like something Nick would have said--let me call him to find out." Plus, the spoken word can die on the vine, while the written word can fester.

Outside of trusted friends and family, you have to assume that any part of any email you ever write could show up in anyone's inbox without much effort on anyone's part.

These email issues are what they are--we'll live with 'em. On a grander scale, though, what motivates this sort of behavior? ((not really sure where I'm going here, but I'll throw a few things out))

the illusion of involvement

the unwarranted "I'm here to help!"

the coy "FYI" nudge nudge

The passive-aggressive desire to foment discord

serious anti-social behavior cloaked as "work" or "business" or "busyness".

KD said...

This one:

"The passive-aggressive desire to foment discord"

is MY favorite. What about you?

The New Englander said...

Hi everybody (said in my Dr. Nick Riviera voice),

Yes, truly a mountain was made of a molehill.

And yes, I do suspect that the fomenting of discord did come into play here, in all cases but especially with what happened to you, Nick..

.. the person who forwarded your e-mail obviously snipped out the portion that would have made your intentions/thoughts clearer to whoever received it. Of course, he didn't cc you on the forward, and included a little snarky comment to go with it -- definitely not the best of intentions. If he really was curious about what you meant, or thought that it was wrong but did not want to foment discord and bring others into the fray, he coulda, woulda, and shoulda just gone right back to you to clear things up.

Bottom Line: Your point about e-mail is a good one. Be careful. In the first case I cited, I was a dumbass for attaching info that I didn't check, and I deserved every bit of what I got.

Second Bottom Line: Don't engage in e-mail "wars." Nine times out of 10, a single phone call or *drop-in* will resolve the entire issue.

Third Bottom Line: I love e-mail, and I love the "cc" feature, because that way you create a written document of what goes on. I cc my immediate boss on nearly every e-mail I send and I do it not for his sake but for mine -- it protects me from someone else's distortion/misinterpretation down the line. It's also a great way to avoid he said/she said type situations.

To paraphrase the NRA, e-mail doesn't foment discord, people foment discord.