What Are Your Emails and Phone Costing You?

How they may be undermining your effectiveness–and relationships.

Ever send an e-mail you wish you could take back?

Neal Patterson, CEO of Cerner Corporation has. Frustrated by the relatively empty parking lot he found when he arrived at 7:45 a.m. on March 13, 2001, he wrote the following email to more than 400 employees:

“We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our KC-based EMPLOYEES. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m. As managers, you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or you do not CARE… I am tabling the promotions until I am convinced that the ones being promoted are the solution, not the problem. If you are the problem, pack your bags…I am giving you two weeks to fix this. My measurement will be the parking lot…You have two weeks. Tick-tock.” (Wong, 2001)

The message was quickly posted to a Yahoo discussion group. The Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesNew York Times, Forbes, and Fortune all ran stories on it. Within three days, Cerner’s stock dropped 22 percent, a loss of approximately $300 million. Patterson’s personal wealth plummeted $28 million.

Yet, all too often we turn instinctively to e-mail when we’re dealing with difficult situations that need to be addressed face to face, or at least over the phone. The number one act for which people fault themselves in the civility quiz I created is using e-mail when face-to-face communication is needed. Sensitive issues, conflict situations, and performance reviews all call for an actual, physical presence. If you find yourself doubting your humor, sarcasm, or criticism, then reread, rethink, and resist the temptation.

A good rule of thumb: If you’re wondering whether or not you should send that e-mail, stop. Don’t send it. Pick up the phone or meet face to face. Some quick guidelines for when not to send an e-mail:

  • You feel the urge to add to the email
  • You can’t resolve a disagreement
  • The email will evoke a negative response
  • You feel angry
  • You feel slighted
  • You know the other party is stressed
  • You feel stress rising
  • The email will deliver bad news

Getting e-mail right isn’t about knowing only what not to send but also when not to send—or, for that matter, when not to open. About three-fourths of the thousands of managers and executives I’ve talked to about e-gadgets find it disrespectful when others use them during meetings. But according to my civility assessment results, over 70 percent of people admit to doing so.

John Gilboy, formerly CIO of a multibillion-dollar consumer products company, took a radical approach to uncouth e-mailers. He noticed that his senior team was distracted during their weekly meetings, feverishly typing away on their laptops. It was not only distracting but also dispiriting and stressful.

Desperate to halt such multitasking, Gilboy decided to experiment. At his next meeting, he placed a cardboard box outside the door and required all attendees to drop their smartphones and laptops in so everyone would be fully engaged and attentive. People didn’t like this new approach at first. Yet within a few months into it, meetings became so productive that the team was able to cut the length of its meetings in half. People also participated more, were more engaged, and had more fun. John’s experiment gave his team a taste of what it feels like to be fully present, and they wound up carrying their respectful habits into other meetings and interactions.

Cutting the umbilical cord to laptops and smartphones isn’t easy, yet the single biggest complaint I hear from employees about their bosses is that they fail to tune in. Recent research has shown that leaders who can’t tear themselves away from their phones while meeting with employees lose their trust—and their engagement. Even having a phone nearby—even without checking it—is detrimental to forging connection. Pairs of people who spoke in the presence of a cell phone reported feeling less closeness and lower relationship quality. Do yourself and others a favor: When you speak or meet with someone, put away your smartphone. Make others the priority.



E. Wong, “A Stinging Office Memo Boomerangs; Chief Executive Is Criticized After Upbraiding Workers by E-Mail,” Business Day, New York Times, April 5, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/05/business/stinging-office-memo-boomerangs-chief-executive-criticized-after-upbraiding.html?pagewanted=all; and “Cerner Example,” BizCom in the News (blog), http://www.bizcominthenews.com/files/cerner-1.pdf.

Originally published at Psychology Today