Less email, more relationship.

I recently had a misunderstanding with a long-standing colleague.  I had business to do and I wanted him to participate. He wasn’t as keen as I’d believed, based on history, that he would be. I needed his services. He didn’t need what I had to offer. There were emails back and forth – lots of them – with no resolution or improvement apparent. Until – to his credit – he picked up the phone and suggested we meet. In person.

I own the starting point on this one. In spite of the fact that we hadn’t spoken in a while, I had a task to assign and some information to impart and I jumped into “get it done” mode. After all, I knew what was required, to me it was fairly straightforward and simple and we’d conducted similar transactions in the past – what could go wrong?

Turns out, quite a bit.

I didn’t for even one second consider what might be going on for him – or that something might have changed since we’d last connected.

I made assumptions about his receptiveness to what I had to offer, and about what his response would be.

I traded – quite heavily – on a pre-existing relationship into which I had made virtually no real investment in way too long.

I defaulted to “I’m busy. It’s quicker this way.”

Turns out – not so much.

It’s NOT quicker if there isn’t complete clarity and alignment.

It’s NOT quicker if you have to retrace steps and clean up mess in order to move forward.

It’s NOT quicker if there is residual resentment or negative perception.

It’s NOT quicker if your beliefs about the other person are based on old information – information that wouldn’t be out of date if you’d taken some time to invest in the relationship.

I’ve been accused of over-using that old carpenter maxim, “Measure twice, cut once.”  But building relationships with other human beings needs to be treated just that way. Rush and take short cuts and you’re risking having to go back and do it over. Take the time up front to do it right and there’s a much better chance that things flow easily and correctly going forward.

Almost every day I hear a client say they’re “too busy” to take the time to build relationships with their colleagues and co-workers. Or that they’re absolutely sure that great relationships are being built as a by-product of being in meetings and doing work together. While I agree that some level of relationship does occur through task-focused interactions, it’s not usually the kind of relationship that can withstand conflict or confusion. And “too busy” in the short term means “not strong enough or deep enough” in the long term.

The prevalence of email in our business culture has exacerbated this problem to epidemic levels. Email is the ultimate transaction tool – and does almost nothing to support building relationships. In this case I violated my own long-standing advice on email and clarity – which is that you should pick up the phone THE FIRST MOMENT you realize that there is any misunderstanding or misalignment in an email exchange.

Thankfully I work with amazing people who are perfectly comfortable calling me out when I mess up. Lesson learned. Or, more accurately, re-learned.


Note: The above was based on Chapter 3 (Invest in Relationships), sections #27 (Peers) and #28 (Direct Reports) in my book, “The Complete Executive.”


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