"My new job is nonstop craziness!"
Elaine's* an intelligent, level-headed, and accomplished professional. It's been years since we were employed at the same company, but we keep in touch and meet up occasionally to trade stories about our latest workplace experiences.
This time, Elaine had a desperate look in her eyes. She was struggling at the small firm where she now worked. What had looked so promising at first was now sheer pressure. The executive team had the habit of dropping new assignments in her lap unexpectedly, and her workload was constantly expanding. When her boss signed her up to attend meetings, she was often unsure why she was there. Goals and priorities were always shifting. Rapid-fire verbal exchanges left her breathless and intimidated. She had no idea what success was supposed to look like, or how she was supposed to get there.
What's the main cause of workplace misery?
If I had to boil it down to one thing only, it would be: uncertainty.
Think about it. When the rules are constantly in flux -- when you're not sure about where you stand, or what's expected of you -- it's pretty hard to focus on the task at hand. Instead of forging ahead confidently, you spend a lot of energy figuring out what you should do, then second-guessing your every action. That's a terrible place to be -- and that's where Elaine found herself now.
Where is the misery spot in your work life? You probably have a few. Name one. It could be:
- a project that's out of control
- a process that's broken
- a peer relationship that's dysfunctional
Poor communication happens when somebody's not effectively saying something they need to say. And this blog, Remarkable Messaging, has a lot to say about saying.
The Uncertainty Solution
I sized up the situation as she spoke, then I shared with Elaine my suspicion that plain old poor communication practices were to blame. The power players in her company were sending confusing signals. Whether they were doing it on purpose, or whether they were oblivious and didn't know any better, the impact was the same: it came across as disorienting, and even disheartening.
The truth is, there is an emotional outcome to poor communication. Uncertainty is not just uncomfortable and unproductive. It makes us feel off-balance and insecure. It raises our anxiety level, and triggers anger and fear. Uncertainty feels like abuse. That's what makes it so crazy-making. Before we even understand what's going on, we are casting ourselves in the victim role: either suffering in mute anguish, or simmering in silent fury.
Then I told Elaine the good news. She could change the dynamic. She didn't have to stay passive and surrender her self-esteem. She didn't have to be aggressive and go on the warpath, either. She could sail above the emotional turmoil, and win without firing a shot. She just had to do three things: stay attentive, be assertive, and use what I lovingly call The Three Emails That Will Save Your Sanity.
Oh, yeah, those. They're why you're reading this post, right? I'll get to Email # 1 in a minute. But first, I want to underscore the importance of the first two parts of the Uncertainty Solution:
- Stay attentive. For the Three Emails to work, you can't be late to the party. You have to show up first, pay attention, and be a dynamic listener. That means your radar is on full blast to follow every word and every nuance. Hear every comment, and read every message. Take notes. Look up references. Make the most of whatever communication comes your way, no matter how incomplete it is. If you are a diligent and receptive listener, you will eliminate a lot of needless confusion and ensure that your Three Emails are only used as weapons of last resort.
- Be assertive. Hendrie Weisinger, in his breakthrough book Emotional Intelligence At Work, defines assertiveness as "the ability to stand up for your rights, opinions, ideas, beliefs, and desires while at the same time respecting those of others." Maintaining an assertive posture, instead of a passive one or an aggressive one, is key. To neutralize the emotional fallout of poor communication, you must bypass those feelings of victimization, remain respectful, and treat the situation objectively. Bear in mind: it's not about whose ego is bigger, who threatens who, who's smarter, or even who's right. It's ONLY about what needs to happen to get the job done. To figure that out, you have just as much right to an explanation as anyone else... and no one can fault you for taking assertive steps to obtain one.
So are you staying attentive, and being assertive? OK -- NOW you're ready to pull out Email # 1. It is, simply put, a tool for resolving communications gaps. Its structure will help you do it calmly, cleanly, and casually, so that you can get the information you need while remaining immune to emotional turmoil.
Email # 1: Just To Confirm
"Just to confirm..." is the way you begin every Email # 1. It's the email you send after every hurried phone call, hectic meeting or hotel lobby conversation -- basically, any time you have a significant verbal interchange.
The objective of the Just To Confirm email is a request to nail down what was decided, so that everyone can avoid errors and optimize the outcome. It summarizes what was said and requests confirmation.
You may be saying at this point, "That's all? That's the big miracle cure?" Yes. The cure for fuzzy communication is focused communication. Moreover, using Just To Confirm emails will start you on the path to fixing the bigger problem that's usually been causing the insanity -- a company communications culture that allows, and possibly even encourages, information gaps.
But back to the email itself. Since it is battling fuzzy communication, its structure is important. Brevity is critical. You will want to organize your message well, then slash it down to the basics. Above all, the tone is always professional, neutral and collaborative.
Want to try out the concept? Here's a template to follow. The bold-font bracketed words explain the intended purpose behind each element:
Sample Just To Confirm Email
Hi Pat, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]
Just to confirm, in our conversation this morning regarding the pigpen, we determined the following: [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]
- The pigpen is broken. Past pigpen repairs have proven to be partial only, perpetuating the problem. [define the issues]
- The pigs are at risk of getting out again. We're also at risk of violating the state's Pigpen Provision and paying a Pigpen Penalty. [define the risks]
- Three loose pen panels need to be replaced. [define the need}
- This needs to happen by the end of the day. [define the deadline]
- You'll call the panel people and schedule the replacement; I'll put the pigs in the penthouse this morning. [action steps, with ownership -- now]
- You'll pass along the replacement price to Peter; Peter will prepare to pay the panel people. [action steps, with ownership -- future]
- I'll ping you when the pigs are in the penthouse. Also, I'm looping in Peter and Penny on this email so they know the plan; you'll report the progress to Pablo and Pasquale on the project call tomorrow. [communications plan]
Please let me know if you have any corrections or additions so I can note them before moving forward. [mutual accountability hook]
Thanks for your help as we plan for peak pig production. [closing paragraph that states a shared objective]
-- Priscilla (from the Special Pigs Unit) [sender sign-off / role reinforcement as needed]
The Magic of Email # 1
A Just To Confirm email nails down decisions, prevents assumptions, and avoids misinterpretations. Most importantly, it gives you an email trail to fall back on. If your colleague goes rogue on everyone later on, and claims it was because you said to do x, not y, you can calmly pull out your Just To Confirm email to clear things up.
Your Just To Confirm email makes it clear that everyone is being held accountable for the success of the project. It's neutral, so it short-circuits turf wars and ego flare-ups. It boils down the issue into small sound bites, so it's easy to understand. It's brief, so it's easy to respond to.
Remember the misery spot you identified earlier? Why not try out a Just To Confirm email this week to address its information gaps? The next time you have a dialogue related to that particular topic, craft and send a Just To Confirm email. See if it helps you fill in the blanks and reduce the insanity. If it does, leave a comment below to report your success!
If you don't think your situation will be helped by this type of email, then watch for my next post which will showcase Email # 2 and Email # 3. To be continued....
Till then, let me remind you once more:
Don't be a passive victim of poor communication.
Get the knowledge you need to succeed.
*I have changed Elaine's name in case her management team is reading this blog. If you're a boss, ask yourself: might you have an Elaine or two in your organization? If so, maybe you have to admit that your organization is communications-challenged. Good news: my favorite authority on organizational health, Pat Lencioni, has a book that is just for you. It's called The Advantage. Read it, and do it -- and the Elaines on your staff will never need to send you a Just To Confirm email!