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What can we learn from passive aggressive emails?

We’ve all received them, haven’t we? The emails that start “Per our conversation…” or “As previously stated…”. And we all know the implication too – “OI YOU! YES YOU! HAVE YOU DONE WHAT I ASKED YOU YET?”.

At BiteSize we often hear in our training courses how passive aggressive language can be one of the most provocative and indeed explosive of workplace behaviours. So, when a poll on the most irksome email phrases was published recently, it made for familiar reading. Almost like the reverse Ten Commandments of influence and persuasion.

And it’s not just the phrasing that annoys us on email. It’s the passive aggressive cc. Who’s in the club? Who’s excluded? Who’s in trouble, who’s not?

So why do we see these behaviours in the workplace? Often, we are using those phrases either to make a point that we’re not brave enough to make directly to a person’s face, or sometimes to protect ourselves from consequences further down the line. Whichever the reason it’s from the standpoint of protecting the ego rather than adding value. And the results can be very destructive to teams.

The behavioural psychologist David Rock has conducted extensive research on the human brain as a social organ, and how it responds to the pressures of the workplace. He says that when we communicate with our colleagues at work and receive something unexpected (such as a passive aggressive email) it triggers the flight-or-fight response.

If we feel under attack when a passive aggressive email lands in our inbox, our defence mechanisms immediately rise as the adrenalin starts to rush through our body. Avoiding the triggering of this mechanism in others is a fundamental part of leadership.

So next time you find yourself rushing to join in a hectic email exchange, try these two tips:

  1. Learn to WAIT. This is a mnemonic for Why Am I Talking? Do you need to say anything? What’s the purpose of talking? Challenge yourself as to why you are communicating this.
  2. What outcomes are you wanting to achieve? Why does this outcome matter to you? Ask yourself and answer this question at least five times – if it still makes good sense after that – as opposed to starting to sound more like a petulant knee jerk reaction – that’s a good sign.

The desired outcome of your communication, whether or not it is in writing, is a critical factor. I remember talking to a woman who was feeling very aggrieved with her manager and was planning to bring her down to size by going into battle with her. After asking her several times about the outcome, and what she didn’t like about the person’s behaviour, it transpired that all she wanted was to be treated fairly, with due status and respect. Something that an aggressive email exchange was never going to change. It was a transformative moment that took their conversation towards a more productive outcome.

We’ve got more tips on email handling here – but before you go, please tell us: what’s the most annoying email phrase you’ve come across?

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