Macharia spent months patiently courting a major agribusiness producer encouraging them to switch their insurance portfolio over to his firm. He met the CEO, CFO, and COO on multiple occasions to better understand their business needs.
He put together competitive quotes and sent ever more innovative proposals. One day, the agribusiness CFO called Macharia and told him that they decided to go with a competing insurance provider.
But out of respect for Macharia and all his efforts, the CFO walked him through the creative solution provided by the competitor to explain why they felt compelled to take their business there.
By understanding this new unique point of view, Macharia learned some exciting new product combinations and marketing positioning that his firm could utilise in the future. So, he eagerly got home, typed up, and sent off an email to his company’s leadership team explaining what he uncovered.
But Macharia’s colleagues Odongo and Mutisya both received Macharia’s email and, instead of interpreting it as unique insights into new ideas from a customer’s point-of-view, they viewed it as an admonishment against them and their departments for not supporting Macharia adequately thus causing the company to lose the insurance deal.
The misunderstanding led to strong retaliatory responses on email that bewildered Macharia and led to spiraling bitterness that soured the working relationships of the leadership team for months.
From email to text messages to social media posts to blogs to WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal to Slack and everything in between, the past 30-years has seen staggering increases in written electronic communications for our lives.
But commensurate with the Covid-19 pandemic that eliminated many of the informal office discussions that used to dominate work life, we experienced a rapid acceleration in our reliance on electronic written communications for nearly all aspects of work interpersonal relationships.
As reduced in-person professional interpersonal connections diminished our social capital during the pandemic, this shift also heightened communication misunderstandings. We must remind ourselves about research surrounding effective electronic communications.
First, recognise that as one composes a written message, or what social scientists would call coding an intended message, an author writes it with a certain emotion and tone in their mind. Emotions, themes, and tones can be positive, negative, sarcastic, humourous, light-hearted, serious, scared etc.
Second, the sender invariably makes the assumption that the exact emotion and tone and, therefore, the intention of the message will be understood by the receiver.
Third, in a classic study, researchers Justin Kruger, Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng found that the author’s assumption about the interpretation of their emotion and tone are typically grossly overestimated in emails. People hold pro-self-bias and think they have achieved effective written communication even when they have not and often quite the opposite.
Fourth, when desirous to communicate important critical points in professional settings, recognise the ambiguous ways that your message or email can be interpreted and just instead pick up the phone and call them. Do not have incorrect overconfidence in your ability to communicate tone and emotion through writing.
Through phone calls, you can convey different tones of voice and volume or inflections that hint at your communication intention far better than written communication can achieve. Remember, the human brain did not evolve to perfectly interpret the written word since writing did not exist when humanity evolved to adeptly survive in the bush in our ancient hunter gatherer past.
Pick up the phone. Do not be lazy. Make the call and stop over relying on email.
Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor