We’ve all had an inconsiderate colleague (let’s call him Worrying William) who needs everything right now. He sends all of his emails with “URGENT” in the subject line, texts you after he emails you, and gives you a call if he doesn’t hear back within a few hours. Perhaps you have dropped other deadlines to help Worrying William finish something, only to find out that the fire drill was totally unnecessary.
Or maybe you’ve run into his counterpart, Non-Responsive Nancy. She will agree to complete a large piece of work and then not reply to your multiple followup emails and calls even when the deadline has come. Non-Responsive Nancy won’t give you any clue that she is stressed out or can’t complete her work. While you’re waiting for a response from her, you’re missing your deadlines, too.
Worrying Williams and Non-Responsive Nancys make collaborating difficult — even more so in our digital life. And, especially now as so many of us continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, without those external cues that help us modify our behavior, it’s easy for any of us to become an inconsiderate colleague.
I call this our digital body language. And if you’re a member of an at-home workplace, it’s wise to look in the mirror and see if you’re making one of these four most common mistakes:
1) You respond too quickly at the expense of clarity
An executive who I’ll call Tom was renowned at one of my client’s offices for both responding right away and also never actually answering the question. Once, when a direct report sent him an email asking, “Tom, do you want us to move forward with this plan or should we gather more information?” Tom replied, “Yes.” Thanks, Tom, we’ll move ahead on one, or both or neither.
Many people feel a lot of pressure to reply instantaneously. But sometimes it’s better to slow communication down by switching the digital channel — like moving a text message request to an email chain — and always be clear with your colleagues about what needs an urgent response and what doesn’t.
2) YOU OVERDO THE CAPS
Consider the following email message: “THIS IS NOT GOOD, NEEDS A LOT OF WORK!!!!” It sounds like Zeus ordering a hit job on a lesser god — terse sentence structure and a crazy picket fence of explanation marks. We often try to infuse “body language” in our digital communication to bring the emotion, enthusiasm and nuance of a human voice to comments in emails, texts and instant messages. But all caps actually make the sender sound hostile, if not totally unhinged.
Always be aware of the visual impact of your message. If ALL CAPS is your thing, tell your colleagues (in a friendly way) that you use them to signal multiple meanings — urgency, excitement or even shouting — to avoid miscommunication.
3) You send messages at terrible times
Don’t expect your team to absorb a novella-length email that you decide to send out at 5 p.m. on a Friday, and definitely don’t expect them to respond to it thoughtfully. Nor should you wait until the last minute to send complex messages that may invite some back-and-forth. In both cases, it’s best to end your message with an invitation for a phone call or an in-person meeting to go over the smaller details. And schedule your emails for ideal times like weekday mornings, while avoiding Friday afternoons or a Sunday morning, when others may feel pressured to respond over the weekend or feel guilty for not responding.
4) You talk too much! Give others the mic, too
In virtual meetings, we often jump to answers quickly because we hate the awkward silence (compared to in-person meetings where we can see that people are thinking). Try and structure meetings that have an agenda and plan specific times for people to share their thoughts. Use breakout rooms and virtual chat tools that encourage everyone to share their opinion, without allowing one single person to dominate. And if you’re prone to overdoing it in texts, emails and meetings, curb yourself by going on mute once in a while. Giving other people the space they might need to think through questions and process ideas makes for a more dynamic conversation.
Often, poor digital behaviors are rooted in unaddressed fears and anxieties that mutate into chronic delays, passive-aggressiveness and the erosion of trust. Yes, it can be hard to read the room over emails, Slack and Zoom, but it isn’t impossible. By following the basic rules of digital body language, you can avoid becoming the inconsiderate colleague in your office.