The Secret to Preventing Email Wars at Your Startup

ConflictWhether a startup or a large corporation, email has become just a fact of our work lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so. Email useful as it is, however seems to create as many problems as it addresses. Beyond the chain letters and phishing emails or spam, flame wars conducted over email is probably the biggest cause of productivity loss, in both large and small companies.

Most back-and-forth email stinkers or flame wars are preventable and many times seem downright silly or petty. Yet they seem to pop up all over the place with near-despairing regularity. Flame wars, particularly between colleagues, is a huge emotional sink, sapping productivity and motivation. This is even truer when the parties involved are in the same office. It is to overcome these that we’ve formulated a simple rule – yep 1 single rule to prevent email flame wars.

The No 3rd email rule Simply put this rule states, if one person has sent an email (#1) and a second person has responded (#2) and it’s clear that they are not agreeing, or not happy – there should be no 3rd email sent. Instead the two parties should talk in person (sometimes this only requires swivelling in one’s chair) or pick up the phone, if not in the same office.

Think about it – most email flaming starts due to one of two reasons:

  • public questioning, accusation or challenge (real or perceived) by usually the sender
  • outright misunderstanding by one party (usually the reader)

In the former case, the recipient responds either defensively, or attacks the sender, as they perceive themselves or their work being undermined or attacked. This may or may not have been the intent of the sender. In the latter, regardless of the sender’s intent, the recipient misunderstands either what is being said or why it is being said (or at times to whom it is being said or copied to) and leads to misunderstanding and grief.

Regardless of who started it, their intent and what was being actually said, the No 3rd email rule works excellently by stopping the electronic conversation, which would at this stage usually deteriorate into accusations, counter accusations and fingerpointing. The beauty of this rule is it is independent of who wields the organizational power between the sender and the recipient and nips the blooming potential conflict in the proverbial bud.

Like all good rules, it’s simple to state and understand, a little bit harder to practice. We are still working on it. What are you waiting for?

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