Don’t entertain poor management, let poor management entertain you.

Good e-mail etiquette is…

For those of you who have never read the Culture Map by Erin Meyer, I have some very good advice … read it! I’m not sure when I bought this book but the tea stains and well-thumbed pages suggest it was around the time that it was published in 2014. Every now and again I return to its pages. Its easy narrative style makes it a pleasure to read and, as well as providing some excellent working strategies, it has also pointed me towards other areas of research and clarified previous study.

Today, I used it as a starting place on the subject of e-mail etiquette. 

I have to say that whilst I am, when it comes to the intercultural issues, somewhat of a nerd, I do also believe that on occasions cultural difference can be used as an excuse for just incompetent management. In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer details the concerns of one of her clients who was frustrated with e-mail etiquette. The accepted practice in the UK and USA of replying immediately to an e-mail even if you don’t have the full answer at your fingertips was not universal. Indeed it isn't. This particular cultural difference is connected to high and low communication.
 

 
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The map above shows three main clusters, Anglo Saxon being low, Latin being mid-range and Far East high. Simplistic, I grant you but sufficient for our purposes. Imagine sending the following request in a mail:
"Can you please send me the sales figures for the past quarter?"
Even if the figures were not immediately available you could expect, within a low context culture, to receive a quick response:
"I don't have those figures immediately to hand as they are still being collated. I will forward them to you on Monday morning at the latest."
This spells out, in a very low context way, exactly what the situation is and when I can expect the results. In higher context cultures, don't expect to hear anything until the results are available. If that is Monday, you will receive the response on Monday. Until that time expect nothing. What are they doing? Did they receive the mail? Is there a problem?

But... there is a problem

Us little low contexters will fret and worry until we have the details we require.

So, whereas Low Context Cultures require assurance that something is being done and details of how it will be done. High Context Cultures just do not see this as necessary. This dichotomy is reflected perfectly in the general opinions of low of high and vice verca.

So firstly - what high context cultures think of people from lower context cultures.
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...and secondly, what low context cultures think of people from higher context cultures.
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This problem, when encountered in a French organisation, is further exacerbated by two additional cultural issues:

  1. France has a greater Power Distance and is far more hierarchical than us Anglo Saxons. So, if your e-mail was in an upward direction within the hierarchy then, not only would there be little inclination to respond quickly but also a genuine “how dare you disturb me” aspect too. 
  2. On top of that, France is almost unique in that it is also an individualist culture. Almost unique because most hierarchical cultures are also collectivist. 

The preoccupation of most bosses in cultures with a high power distance and individualist footprint is how NOT to de-motivate the workforce.

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Geert Hofstede

Dutch social psychologist and author of Cultures and Organizations - Software of the Mind.

So what results, in some French Organisations, is the management equivalent of a perfect storm: hierarchy, individualism and high context communication. Because when e-mails disappear into a black hole, that’s demotivating; when e-mails worthy of an instant response, are forwarded up an endless managerial chain for a decision, with no explanation as to where or why they have gone, that’s demotivating; a classic e-mail, sent in plenty of time, many moons ago, that now returns, prefixed, emblazoned with the words ‘urgent’, ‘important’, ‘critical’ and a million other similar synonyms, because the responder has allowed the original mail to fester in their inbox gathering dust, that’s demotivating and finally, perhaps worst of all – e-mails suggesting good ideas, destined for the trash bin simply because the sender naïvely thought someone further up the ladder would be interested, that’s just bad management... and very demotivating. 

Solutions

Let’s re motivate and manage and apply.

Do nothing?

I fully recognise that overcoming cultural barriers is a shared responsibility but, despite this reluctance of high power distance cultures bosses to accept any form of bottom-up feedback, it is generally accepted the do-nothing option is not an option for many global companies.

A Quick Win?

Surely one of the easiest quick wins to help a demotivated workforce would be to adopt an acceptability of lower context communication, especially in e-mails. I am really trying not to sound condescending and patronising as I read that.

faire une quittance?

In no way is this an original thought. I know of one company in France, part of a global network, that actively encourages a philosophy of faire une quittance– making a receipt – with e-mails. Doing exactly what has been described above. Giving some indication or reassurance that something will be done and when a response can be expected.

There is no need for the longwinded introductory preamble and bonne fin de semaine etc., so loved in French e-mails, just a line to explain the situation. .

Conclusion.

This difference in methods of response to e-mails is entrenched in culture. It is, however, not unusual to just never get a response to an e-mail. As time passes perhaps the sender will forget? I mention this as I recently heard someone suggest that this too (ignoring an e-mail) was an issue with its roots in cultural differences. 

Do you know what … I don’t think it is. It happens in all cultures and companies.

In my humble opinion, it’s just bad, demotivating and frustrating management. It is a symptom of a company culture where employees and managers alike no longer seam able to address mail to the relevant people, preferring to inform the entire company that the coffee machine on the 7th floor in broken. 

When this type of behaviour becomes the norm; is it not perhaps surprising that there is a temptation to dismiss e-mails either because the volume is too great, the percenetage of unnecessary circulations too high or in the knowledge that mail from certain individuals will either be pointless or just too time consuming. 

However, just like the boy who cried wolf the solution is to address the issue, because the do nothing option and to continue with bad e-mail etiquette is indeed a huge demotivator, ultimately a huge waste of time at all levels of the organisation and an opportunity for great ideas to slip through the net.
  • Definition of remotivate in English: - To motivate again; to provide (a person) with a new motive or motivation.

  • Definition of remanage in English: - One who manages and redefines his/her own skills.

  • Definition of Reapply in English: - apply (an existing rule or principle) in a different context.

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