Why Confronting Colleagues via Email is a Bad Idea

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

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 respond, ‘quickly’.

“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 email.”

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 sending it.”

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.

Negative 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 time.

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 back.”

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 get it.

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 own incompetence.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a document with a summary of links to past columns, or give feedback, please email him at columns@fwconsulting.com

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