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Technology has provided a way to send information quickly, easily, and without the messiness of emotions inherent in actually speaking with another human (Goleman, 1995). Electronic mail was originally intended to distribute information to employees en masse, and to efficiently allocate organizational resources. It was never intended to be a substitute for respectful interaction, or a medium in which to discuss sensitive information. The immediacy of e-mail often times fails to consider the following: (whether) 

  • the sender has all of the facts;
  • he or she knows your side of the story; and
  • the sender in fact may be the one at fault

For some e-mail has unfortunately become an “electronic cattle prod,” the slam method of choice for individuals who are too lethargic to traverse a corridor. The “one-down” impact of an e-mail ambush leaves its recipients feeling surprised, small, powerless, and ashamed. In electronic contention all of the elements needed for respectful discourse, such as self-examination, attentiveness, empathic listening, and humility are sacrificed for expediency’s sake.

Boundary violation at its best makes victims feel increasingly less able to defend themselves; at its worst it spawns the “paws up” mentality in which individuals automatically assume they are at fault. For the fault finder e-mail is just another way to engage in “gotcha,” a method in which employees are surreptitiously stalked and indelibly branded. Subordinates are the losers in a high-tech arena where electronic defense is met with an even angrier, more verbose show of managerial strength. E-mail’s officious, impersonal, and impatient nature provides instantaneous gratification for those who are on the rampage, and ensures an effortless way to crush rebellion in the ranks. Resentment is created when people are unable to respond to one-way reprimands, which Poe describes in Don’t Touch that Send Button:  

“E-mail is incapable of creating tone, which increases the potential for misinterpretations. Things that may be cleared up quickly in a face-to-face conversation often fester when the recipient misinterprets an e-mail message….the callousness with which [some] e-mail delivers news-good or bad – is a poor way to show leadership. Disagreements or discipline are best handled in person, or at least, over the phone” (Poe, 2001).

Electronic reprimands set the stage for expression that occurs only at the boss’s prerogative, and without the employee’s defense. 

The uber efficiency of e-mail has prompted some companies to ban the medium for discourse altogether, advocating instead that individuals speak with one another. These companies realize that conflict is much more likely to escalate when non-verbal communication and two way interaction are removed from the equation.



Goleman, D.  (1996).  Emotional intelligence (p. 151).  New York, NY:  Bantam Books.

Poe, A. C.  (2001).  Don’t touch that ‘send’ button!  (pp. 75-76).  HRMagazine 46, 74-80.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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