In my 15 years of being a CEO, there is one simple rule I follow: Never send negative feedback via email. That includes chat or text message and essentially anything electronic. Particularly for those of you in the workforce under 30, this might sound surprising since electronic communication has become such a ubiquitous and often preferred business communication tool. It’s fast, it’s efficient and it’s accessible everywhere. But it’s a terrible tool for delivering negative feedback. Why?
It’s easy to misinterpret: Even when written in an emotionally balanced manner, email messages leave lots of room for interpretation. Complicating matters, they’re also frequently skimmed especially if they’re long. Remember that negative feedback is one of the hardest to receive, so even the seemingly most simple and innocuous feedback can be misunderstood or hit a nerve. Also, keep in mind that when the message is electronic, controlling tone is always challenging. Unless you’re Earnest Hemmingway, you’re not going to get it right. If you find yourself typing ‘don’t take this email the wrong way’, then you’re better off delivering the message in person.
It’s too accessible: It’s so easy to shoot off an email when you’re frustrated, disappointed, fired up or after a glass of wine. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times with contents ranging from annoying and poorly conceived to highly unprofessional. Being an effective leader is about controlling your emotions and measuring your response.
It eats up time: Keep in mind that the more time you spend on the email, the more time whoever you’re sending it to will spend digesting and responding. Too often you could be looking at a 2 hour exchange before you know it. Across an organization, this can be an incredible productivity sink.
It’s too easily shared: Finally, in the case where you might be really fired up, shooting off an email can quickly become incendiary and leaves an indelible record that’s easy to forward, post or even use in litigation. Email is easy to show to colleagues, friends or even a spouse, who’ll provide color commentary that you didn’t intend no matter how well written.
Now I’m sure that some of you are saying, ‘But sending an email is so easy. I’m better when I write it out and I don’t like giving negative feedback in person.’ Feedback is not about finding shortcuts; and it’s definitely not about finding the path of least resistance to deliver the news. If you prefer to write something out to organize your thoughts, do that – it’s something I often do – but use it as an outline to deliver that feedback in person.
I urge you to go back and look at your email exchanges. You’ll likely find you give negative feedback in email more often than you think and that it can cost you a lot more than it’s worth. So make it a rule: If you’re giving negative feedback, do it in person or, in this increasing remote business environment, pick up the phone or use Skype. You’ll be able to better read the other person, quickly clear up miscommunication and make sure your points get across correctly. You’ll also show you respect the person by setting aside time during your day. It’s ultimately far more efficient and effective, and creates a much more productive, positive work environment.
But the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable giving negative feedback in person, it’s time to learn and develop that skill. Effectively delivering negative feedback is one of the most important business tools you can develop and essential for getting ahead. In fact, some of the people I respect most in business – including some who report to me – are exceptional at giving negative feedback in a way that is inspiring and leads to better performance.
What you think? Does this work for you? Does it fit the realities of modern communication? I’d recommend trying it for a month and if you do, let me know what happened. Stay tuned as next week I’ll be addressing the topic of negative feedback and offering some tips on how to deliver it constructively with impact and grace.