The angry email is a timeless problem among young leaders and managers. Something gets us upset and we impulsively take to the keyboard to try to fix it. What comes out is typically edgy and direct. Usually there’s frustration buried between the lines.
I’ve had the chance to work with several young physician leaders over the past couple of years. I’ve been able to follow up on a few of these emails and have noticed some patterns.
Angry email and the fantasy of change
The angry email is usually rooted in frustration over inefficiencies or some nagging problem that hasn’t been fixed. Ultimately, it’s about the fantasy of the willful imposition of change by the sender. It starts with access to a small audience of local leaders who might be able to initiate that change1. The defining element of the angry email is that it’s ultimately regretted. Or it should be. Because it rarely leads to the intended outcome. Instead, it makes the sender look impetuous and weak.
We all identify with the problem, of course. We’ve all had the urge to launch an angry email. But it’s how we act on that urge that ultimately defines us. Most immediately you have to separate yourself from the situation and allow time to settle down. Writing what you feel, or would like to send, and then giving it time is often enough to gain distance and perspective. Discussing with a trusted colleague who knows your work environment is another way to diffuse the frustration. A reality check with your spouse or partner is another option. The key is to avoid acting on impulse.
As the recipient of this kind of message, I never respond directly. Email threads are not the place for this and it only endorses the tactic as a legit form of engagement. Instead I pick up the phone to better understand the sender and their frustration. When it seems appropriate, I open a discussion about the downside of trying to get everyone on your side using a digital torpedo.
We can’t control circumstances, only how we respond
Change and conflict resolution begin with the careful assessment of an environment and its stakeholders. It involves raising the issue as a priority and then winning individual buy-in to address the problem. Often it requires persistence and time. And sometimes change doesn’t happen despite our best efforts.
A defining feature of a seasoned leader is composure and control in the face of challenging situations. The angry email is about the measured approach — what we don’t say is as important as what we do. So much of my journey as a leader has been about controlling my emotions. Controlling myself. I usually can’t change the circumstances around me, but I can control how I respond.
- In the dark ages before email, the natural friction to corresponding with business colleagues made this kind of thing impossible. Since then, social dialog has lowered the rant barrier creating further challenges for those prone to impulsive responses. ↩︎
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