Recognising Instincts and E.mail


Through the lens of human instincts, here's the lineup of instinctive behaviour demonstrated by email usage:

1. Social Belonging – connecting to our social group as well as using emails to avoid people we don’t like or who scare us. 
2. Gossip (including grooming) – used to forge alliances and to share information (“guess what I just heard”, “check this out”). 
3. Politics – who to bring into the email loop, who to drop out, who to get to first and choosing when and how to escalate an issue.
4. Contest and Display – making ourselves look good, showing how busy we are, copying the world as well as pointing out someone else’s error to reduce their social reputation. And we can have a go at someone from a safe distance (electronically) that we wouldn’t say to their face or even on the phone.    
5. Loss Aversion – covering your butt.
6. Hierarchy and Status – ignoring people of lower status, being selective in prioritising emails to and from high-status individuals.
7. Emotions Before Reason – in the way we interrupt a message, assuming the worst if that interpretation is available, being unable to suspend our emotional reaction. 
8. First Impressions to Classify – relying on thin slices of information, generally at the start of the email, governing how we read the email. 
9. Empathy and Mind Reading – given we are a face-reading species (reading what others are thinking and feeling by what’s written on our face), we miss a key communication element when we communicate by email and we can understate empathy and feelings.  

Using Instincts
We can choose to use emails well. Here are some suggestions to help your thinking:

1. Use to generate positive emotion. A positive emotion can be created from a brief email that might take just 15 seconds to send. Once when I was a HR Director, one of our team updated the standard employment contract and sent the fresh draft to the executive team. The CEO sent a two-line email back to Cathy thanking her for a job well done. Cathy was walking on air for the next few days. How simple.  

2. Associated with this is to use your power (status) well through emails. A person I know was promoted with an internal email announcing her promotion. She was especially appreciative of an ex-CEO, now posted in another country, who saw the internal announcement and emailed his congratulations. How simple. 

3. Recognition and appreciation. Choose to be less passive in the receipt of emails and look for opportunities to acknowledge people, especially people who report to you or are lower in your organisation.   

4. Use your power well by treating people equally with your email usage, response and language. 

5. Avoid using as a conflict-avoidance tool. Try this. The next time someone sends you an email that seems to be aimed at aggravating you, don’t respond by email. Go see the person, or if that’s not practical, pick up the phone and talk with them. Negative emotion can be quickly dissipated.     

6. Use email traffic to monitor the extent to which people are dealing with you or avoiding you. Do you receive emails from people you would expect to talk to you? It may be that they fear you. 

7. Avoid enhancing your social status at someone else’s expense, such as escalating an issue that embarrasses the other person and that diminishes their reputation.  

8. Ensure your emails are easily understood. People make sense of messages in the first seven words. In your subject line and in the first few words provide the information that allows people to “classify” or make sense of where your email is going. 

Here’s an exercise. For the next 24 hours see what positive emotion you can generate through your use of email. You’ll probably only take a total of three minutes out of your day to significantly enhance other people’s energy.  

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Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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