When Email Becomes Bmail™ (Bullying Mail)

When Email Becomes Bmail™ (Bullying Mail)

Ever find yourself in a dispute with a colleague and you’re handling it via email? And, did you find yourself writing things that you wouldn’t express in a face to face meeting? If so, then you experienced what psychologists call the “disinhibition effect”. That is, showing less restraint in a virtual world than in a physical world. Years and years ago in the era of LISTSERV (an early group email application), I witnessed “flaming” comments written by people who I know would never had said such awful things to my face. People seemed like bullies with one another—threatening, trying to intimidate, insult.

How can you manage the conflicts that emerge from disinhibition?

  1. Stop typing.
  2. Ask yourself: would you say that to the person were he or she in the room with you?
  3. If a target of Bmail, consider the source. What’s happening with that other person? Why are they stressed? Are they suffering from the disinhibition phenomenon?
  4. Pick up the phone, after a bit. Give yourself time to get over the insults and accusations and then call the person.
  5. During the call, be curious. Don’t launch into accusations. Find out what they have to say. Likely they will be more respectful and caring because you called. They may not even be aware of their perceived tone in the email.
  6. Use email to set appointments and confirm them rather than as a means to supervise, insult, control, threaten or anything else you find unpleasant.

What I know to be true in my practice is that people are using email as a way to deliver difficult messages and to avoid face-to-face discussions. In the long run you will create many more problems using email than learning how to have a difficult conversation.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.

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