Whether you manage five people or five hundred, as an IT manager you spend a lot of time communicating with your people. These days, the preferred means of management communication is e-mail.

Unfortunately, most IT managers expend more effort filling out their expense reports than they do crafting the messages they send out to their departments. Yet these same managers are surprised when an e-mail they sent out to “fire up the troops” behind the latest IT initiative ends up causing a mini-mutiny instead.

The culprit? Insincerity, and its evil twin, the appearance of insincerity. In this column, I’ll explain the dangers of insincerity, and give specific examples of the kinds of disastrous e-mail messages so many IT managers send. In my next column, I’ll offer tips on how to craft successful department-wide e-mail messages.
This week’s column talks about e-mail messages and how IT managers can avoid sounding insincere. We’d like to hear from our members about some of the worst e-mail messages you’ve ever sent or received.
Post your comment to this article by joining the Discussion below. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to the Artner’s Law column will win a TechRepublic laser pointer.
Dealer without a clue
A couple of months ago, I took my car in to the dealer to be serviced. There was nothing wrong with the car; I was just doing the last scheduled maintenance before my lease expired.

While my dealer usually does an excellent job, this time they really screwed up, not letting me know until 5:00 P.M. on Friday that my car wasn’t ready, and that they’d need to keep it over the weekend.

To make a long story mercifully short, I was really frosted. A couple of weeks later, I got a survey from the dealer, asking me to rate their performance on my last service. I took the time to fill out the lengthy questionnaire, offering specifics on their mistakes.

After I dropped it in the mail, I felt better. I’d been able to get it off my chest. While I didn’t think the dealer would comp the cost of the last service, I expected to hear from them again—my comments had been scathing, and my wife and I have leased a number of cars from them over the years.

After a while, I did hear from them. In fact, I got a greeting card from the dealer yesterday. On the card’s cover was a drawing of a man walking his dog through a crowded park on a nice summer’s day. The cover also contained these lines:
Living in your own lane, you sometimes see things others haven’t seen before.

When you opened the card, you saw this:
…when you’re disappointed, we are too.
Thanks for your candid comments on our recent survey.
Know that they’re being taken seriously and that we hope from now on you’ll only find positive reasons to share your thoughts with us.

When I first read the card, I laughed at how completely phony and lame it sounded, but then I got annoyed again. It was bad enough that they kept my car over the weekend, I said to myself, but after I took the time to fill out their stupid survey, this was how they responded?

They can’t read your mind, only your words
In the case of this car dealership, they weren’t going out of their way to hack me off. In fact, they went to all the trouble to design and print a greeting card, precisely in order to respond to people like me, who sent in a negative comment on a survey. The dealership was trying to do the right thing. But their cure was worse than the disease.

The same thing happens all the time with corporate e-mail. I’m not talking primarily about the e-mail you send to an individual, rather, about the e-mail messages you send to groups, departments, or entire business units.

A ridiculous number of IT managers send out group e-mails, hoping to diffuse a potential firestorm, only to find that the e-mail message they sent out fans the very flames they hoped to dampen.

These managers aren’t stupid or malicious. Often, they’re just too busy to take the time to craft a decent e-mail message. Ironically, these same busy IT managers end up spending a lot more time fighting fires after sending their e-mail than they would have had to spend just composing a better message in the first place.

You might be sitting at your desk right now, wondering, “What kind of e-mail is Artner talking about?” To answer that question, look at the following examples, and see if you can recognize anything you’ve written that falls along these lines:

  • The “I-love-this-guy-as-he-walks-out-the-door” e-mail: If you manage people long enough, you’re going to encounter a problem employee, someone that can’t fit within the organization, despite your best efforts. When that person finally leaves, don’t make a bad situation worse by sending out an e-mail praising the person’s contributions, and lamenting how much you’ll miss him.
    If the two of you went after each other with hammer and tongs, don’t you think the rest of the staff knows that? What good will it do for you to pretend otherwise? Instead of lying (let’s call it by its proper name), concentrate on the things you can say that are true, or don’t say anything at all.
  • The “Inflated-project-completion” e-mail: Whenever your people complete a high-profile project, you naturally want to send out some kind of e-mail to the company trumpeting their efforts. While this is perfectly natural, resist the temptation to overly dramatize the project’s scope or to inflate the efforts your people had to make. Not only will it not motivate your people, but it will also desensitize the rest of the company to those projects that really do drive your staff to their absolute limits.
  • The “We’re-all-in-this-together-but-I’m still-leaving-at five” e-mail: There are times when you have to drive your people pretty hard to finish a particular project on time. Sometimes, that’s just the way life is. However, when you’re explaining that to your direct reports, don’t say things like “we have to suck it up” or “we’ll have to put in a lot of late hours,” unless you plan to be one of the ones sucking it up and putting in the late hours. You don’t want your staff to think of that scene in the movie Patton, when George C. Scott’s jeep drives by a line of troops on a hill in Sicily. One of the GIs turns to his buddy and says, “There goes old ‘Blood and Guts.’” To which his buddy replies, “Yeah. Our blood—his guts.”

Think twice, e-mail once
Of course, this is mostly common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is often in short supply when it comes to e-mail. If you’re looking for a general rule, I’ll give you three:

  1. Don’t deliver tough messages in e-mail unless absolutely necessary.
  2. When you’re writing an e-mail, spend as much time considering how it will be received as you spend deciding what you want to say.
  3. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.

As I promised earlier, next week we’ll talk about strategies for effective group e-mail messages. Until then, keep your finger off the Send button until you’re sure the message you’ve crafted is the one you want to send.

Bob Artner is vice president for content development at TechRepublic.

We’d like to hear about some of the worst e-mail messages you’ve ever received.
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