Most of us have vented frustration in an email. Some rant at the recipient like they’d never do in person. A smaller subset stumble badly. We hit “Reply All” when we don’t intend to, write a nastygram or some other uncomplimentary email about a person and hit “Send” only to realize that the person who we are complaining about got the email. Fevered attempts to recall it usually prove fruitless. The unintended recipient either ends up embarrassed or offended. Explanations may or may not salve wounds. But damage lingers.
As a principle I don’t write nasty notes because they might get forwarded. If I have criticism, I make sure I say it in person. However I have hit the “Reply All” button and unintentionally sent an email asking another manager why one of his direct reports doesn’t understand his directions, only to realize too late that the message went to the direct report.
Recently something worse happened. One of my colleagues had to deliver some bad news to an important supplier. My colleague had done everything they could to ensure a good outcome. But it just didn’t work out. The email my colleague sent had several recipients on it. One obviously unintentionally hit “Reply All” and sent an email questioning my colleague’s competence and even their motivations. The result? Just like that our relationship, central to a new project, deflated.
The invective dripping from his email indicated feeling that went beyond this one issue. But when he recognized what he had done — even before we had seen the email — he left a message on my colleague’s cellphone backpedaling. “I shouldn’t have sent that email,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was frustrated about something unrelated to you.” That didn’t pass the smell test. I immediately began asking myself why he had written it. What frustration did he harbor that lead him to say what he did? We must have done something wrong.
He compounded his error by making the lame excuse. The sender should have spelt out his frustrations. Failing to do so chipped away his integrity. He could have used his mistake to speak frankly about what we had done to upset him and in doing so strengthened the relationship. Actually I think it best in these situations to go a step further and address the issues in person. That tells someone you value the relationship. Voicemail doesn’t.
One of his superiors called to fix the damage. Doing so upset me further. Why couldn’t he call to talk in person? Unfortunately the partner used the word “if”, as in “I am sorry if you were offended,” or something like that. The British writer George Orwell recognized the word’s power half a century ago in his wonderful essay “Politics of the English Language.” Want to deflect responsibility? Deploy “if”. “I’m sorry if you were offended” shifts blame from the speaker and places it on the victim. “If” distances the transgressor from their transgression. The correct usage? “I’m sorry he offended you.”
We did not hear from the writer for two weeks. That meant the wound festered for days. “What had we done? What had we done?” droned on in my head. Obviously not good for any relationship, personal or business.
When we finally talked he confessed that a series of frustrations unrelated to us caused him to crack when we delivered the bad news. Plausible? Maybe. But the length of time it took to call left too many questions unanswered. His in effect uttering the hollow words of the protagonist in poet T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all;/that is not it/at all.” didn’t really satisfy. However it was time to move on. The relationship mattered too much to allow an email to destroy it. Ultimately I hope the lack of respect embedded in it doesn’t portend a sad end to it.
Whatever the case, the writer provided a reminder that “Reply All” has destructive power. At least I can thank him for that.