Reading Between the Lines in Email

Managers often complain that employees don't give us the information we need to make good decisions and keep our teams humming along. On the other hand, employees often claim they give their bosses lots of information but we don't listen to them. Maybe we need to change the way we listen--not just by using our ears better, but our eyes as well.

If that sounds odd, it depends on your definition of listening. As with everything in life, the definition is morphing. For example, if you want to go old-school, Merriam Webster defines listening as: "to pay attention to sound", while the freedictionary.com says it's "to pay attention, heed". This latter definition changes things quite a bit.

After all, in a work environment where the person you're working with might be on the other side of the planet and not even awake when you're working, verbal communication has taken quite a beating. Honestly, how much time do you spend on the phone anymore, let alone face to face? You can't overhear water cooler conversations or people being snippy with each other over the phone as the conversation wafts over cubicle walls.

Listening in the new world of work involves "paying attention or heeding" to information and communication in all its forms. Here are some examples of things we should be listening for that haven't got much to do with our ears:

  • Does the flow of email suddenly change? Has there been a change in the amount of written communication suddenly? Do normally self-sustaining workers suddenly bombard us with requests for information? Do communicative people suddenly fall off our radar screen? Sometimes there are just changes in the amount of information people need, but they may be cries for attention or signs of dysfunction in the team.
  • Has the tone of communication on team wikis and social media changed? Just like we'd hear more than information in someone's tone of voice, written communication has a tone as well. One of the keys to good listening is not only picking out critical data, but context . Are people answering your questions willingly and giving you the information you need, or has it suddenly become like pulling teeth to get them to respond? Do normally busy posting sites suddenly fall silent? Are people making snippy personal remarks when communicating with each other?
  • Are you getting CC:ed on more information than usual? Is your email inbox suddenly full of messages that "keep you in the loop" even though it should be handled by the people directly involved? Odds are there's a red flag there. Maybe the team members are having trouble communicating, or one party doesn't trust that the other one will meet their commitments without dragging you into it (willingly or not).
If we're really on our game as managers, we can pick up these trouble signals and proactively deal with them. We need to "hear" what's being said (or NOT being said which any married person will tell you is often more critical).

Of course, that might mean actually having real, voice to voice (if not face to face) conversations with people and doing some old-school listening for a change.

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photo by flickr user twenty_questions CC 2.0