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Are E-Mail Wildfires Burning Your Team?
A Position Paper for Managers of Virtual Teams
E-mail wildfires are electronic disputes that start small, but rapidly spiral out of control. Just as real-life wildfires ravage trees and other plants, the e-mail variety feeds on misunderstandings, poorly worded or poorly thought out messages, hidden agendas, rivalries, and any other destructive force you've tried to keep clear of your virtual team. In mere minutes, an e-mail wildfire can render months, even years of your careful team-building work utterly worthless.
For example, in one recent e-mail wildfire, one member of a virtual editorial team asked another if they suffered from an attention deficit disorder, or ADD. The remark was meant as a sarcastic joke after the recipient had missed several key deadlines. But somewhere along the Internet, the message's humorous intent was lost. Instead, the e-mail's recipient was furious at what he perceived to be a gross insult.
There's no way to totally prevent e-mail wildfires like that one from starting. But e-mail wildfires can -- and must -- be controlled.
First, as a manager, it's your duty to extinguish e-mail wildfires as soon as you learn about them. Ask team members to help by alerting you to any e-mail wildfires that are underway. Also ask them to forward wildfire messages to you. Then, once you get a wildfire alert, set up a three-way phone call with the flaming parties. Allow each side to explain its position. Listen carefully for misunderstandings - the key to most e-mail wildfires - and seek apologies where appropriate.
Second, set guidelines for your team so that many e-mail wildfires can be avoided in the future. Put the guidelines in writing, post them on your team intranet, and distribute them in e-mail. Above all, make sure they exist and that all team members know them well.
To help you get started, here are five warning signs that an e-mail wildfire could erupt. If you or your team members find yourselves in any of these e-mail dialogues, take a deep breath, stop what you're doing, and pick up the phone:
* Complex discussions that require a great deal of back-and-forth, such as salary reviews, performance reviews, reassignments, meetings to kick-off a new project. These require discussion, questions, listening - activities you can't do in e-mail. For example, one manager of a virtual team decided to replace several freelance contractors with full-time staffers. He did a decent job of explaining the situation to both sides' satisfaction, only to undo all his careful preparation with a careless e-mail that said, in part, "we need to improve our quality," thereby implying that the quality of the outgoing team was low. The freelancers were understandably insulted and hurt by the memo, felt the manager should have called them on the phone, and did their best to derail a smooth transition to the new team.
* Announcements of major changes. Your group has a new VP, the company is changing its name, your group is being merged into another. Take, for example, a Web startup within a larger publishing company that went through two major reorganizations, four group VPs, a corporate acquisition, and the complete destruction of its group, all within three years. Careful, thorough communication from the team manager - most of it on the phone - kept the group intact through this dizzying merry-go-round.
* Emotional discussions. The hard ones: Hiring, firing, demotions, promotions. All deserve at least a phone call and preferably a face-to-face meeting. One of the saddest stories from the Enron mess was that of a manager who was laid-off with nothing more than a single, impersonal e-mail message from his manager. Don't be that way.
* Most humor. If your humor tends toward sarcasm and irony, watch out. "What's taking you so long?" sent sarcastically to the team speed demon is likely to be misunderstood to mean its complete opposite. Also, go easy on forwarding so-called humorous e-mail. I've received three from well-meaning colleagues in just the past two days: "A Guide to New York Jargon," complete with tired stereotypes; and "How Do These People Survive," a list of ignorant statements purportedly made in real-life situations, intended to demonstrate the dumbing-down of our society but clearly fictional; and a mock warning from the Mozambique Ministry of Fish and Wildlife about man-eating lions that I suppose was meant to be vaguely racist. If you must pass along e-mail humor, do it after-hours and with your personal e-mail account.
* Gossip. There's a kind of Murphy's Law of e-mail gossip: The person you dish will inevitably be sent a copy of your e-mail. One virtual-team manager, for example, was surprised to receive an e-mail in which he was called "clueless" and the "wrong person for the job." It had been sent to one of his team member by a freelance contractor, and the team member had been upset enough to forward it to the manager. You can imagine how long the freelancer's contract lasted after that. (The funny part was that the freelancer was actually surprised.)
Only you -- and your telephone -- can prevent e-mail wildfires.
PETER KRASS is the president of Petros Consulting (, a firm that helps clients improve written communications to attract, nurture, and develop excellent customers, quality suppliers, committed employees, and long-term partners. Call or write Peter at 718-398-5811,
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