By Francis Wade
Wednesday, May 21, 2014.
There's a new, unproductive email tactic being used
in some workplaces to get people to act on your requests, called 'swarming'.
In my time-based productivity class a few weeks ago, a frequent victim
of this tactic shared her story, which I'll paraphrase for the sake of clarity.
"First, 'The Swarmer' sends me an email. Then, about half an hour
later, it starts; the guy in my cubicle asks me when I'm going to respond. I
look at him and ask 'To whom?' He shows me the email he just got from The
Swarmer, who is safely hiding in her cubicle. She asks him to get me to
"Speechless, and before I can muster up a memorable reply, someone
else walks in to ask me why I haven't responded to The Swarmer's email.
Flabbergasted, I now have the two of them looking at me with suspicion, as if
"Before the day is finished, three other people have swarmed me,
including my boss. I am livid! But, I don't say a thing to The Swarmer - she'd
probably swarm me again if I tried, and no, I haven't replied to the
There are some nefarious colleagues in your office who are, no doubt,
reading this column and taking notes.
Don't, however, be tempted to 'fight fire with fire'.
The story above reminds me of a similar tactic used by a senior
vice-president who called me in for help. His direct reports, who were
themselves vice-presidents, were "unproductive with their email," he
complained. When I interviewed them, they explained: "Oh, yeah, most of us
ignore his email requests."
I must have appeared sceptical, or shocked, so they replied, "He
sends the same email request to five people, separately. He forgets who he's
sending it to ... so we just delete it. Most of the time, he can't remember
It was another form of swarming - this time, in the opposite direction.
Swarming is a 'productivity-killer' an attempt to make up for poor
communicating, and delegating skills that suck up time, attention and yes,
money. In each of these cases, brute force email is being used in a crude
attempt to fix a problem that has far deeper roots.
And, there's even a third kind of swarming that has nothing to do with
multiple messages. It's a kind of 'emotional swarming' used when we are afraid
to deal with people directly. It often happens when we are upset, or close to
being upset, and decide to send someone else feedback.
We try to use email to have a conversation which should only take place
in person, or on the phone, when we can respond to adverse reactions in real
Someone told me a long time ago: "Never give negative feedback via
email, or use it to try to win an argument or resolve a difficult matter. Email
is only good for sending information, thank-yous, big ups, and directions to
the restaurant. That's it. Even when someone asks for feedback via email, don't
give it. They can take it the wrong way if they are only expecting a pat on the
Looking back, I can see that it was good advice, because a harmless
email that tries to do too much can be experienced by the recipient as an
attack: a form of emotional swarming.
That's usually not what we intend. We like to think that our honest
feedback will be well received by the recipient who will see the error of
his/her ways, and who in turn will acknowledge that you were right.
The sad truth is this never happens, and if you do happen to receive
words to that effect, assume that the recipient's true feelings are purposely
being kept out of the message.
Your email swarmed them emotionally, and now their hurt has gone
underground, where it may reappear at some later date to do its real damage.
The solution is simple, but tough: use a face-to-face conversation or
your phone, if you must, to conduct hard-to-have conversations.
Prepare what you want to say and rehearse it with a friend before
meeting your protagonist. Be prepared for the worst reaction, and you may not
This is the more difficult path to take - calling for more skill and
courage - but it's worth the investment in time and effort.
While it may seem to invite an immediate negative reaction, it can do
far less damage because you aren't hiding behind email, other people, or your
Francis Wade is a management consultant and
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