Break the email stalemate with a phone call

Closeup of a happy young businesswoman talking on phone George Doyle

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Technology lies. Email, for example, promised to bring asynchronous, parallel-processed communication to the business world. And sure, sometimes it works. But email has also introduced us to endless threads that delay simple actions and decisions for days -- or even weeks -- while messages bounce endlessly between 2 or 3 parties.

Imagine this scenario: You need to find out if a partner team agrees to take over sustained support for a project you're trying to complete. You ask the manager for her approval, but she replies with some questions. The next day, you reply, and a whole day goes by before you hear from her again. This time, though, you don't understand her reply, and you ask for clarification. One or two days go by before you get a reply, but this time she has added someone else to the thread, and he wants to weigh in with a question.

Something that should have taken a day has taken a week, and you're still not done.

It's not surprising that this happens. In my experience, there are a several major factors contributing to this failure:

  • Everyone is busy replying to hundred emails each day. Consequently, you don't notice that a lot of time is passing and nothing of substance is getting done in this one particular thread.
  • Corporate culture emphasizes email over 1:1 communication, so you don't instinctively consider taking it up a notch.
  • Across a wide array of businesses, knowledge workers are increasingly averse to direct communication and rely instead on email, which, while sometimes slower, abstracts co-workers into less threatening bundles of text.

Unfortunately, that means communication glitches like this can become the norm rather than the exception. There's a simple solution though: Have the courage to pick up the phone. When you sense that an email thread is stagnating or retarding the progress of a project, escalate the issue -- politely, of course -- by making a phone call or scheduling a 1:1 meeting. There's only one person who can break the email stalemate, and it's you.

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