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How to stop your Email Knee Jerk Reaction before it stops your Career

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Knee Jerk - KAC

Many years ago, I worked simultaneously for 2 bosses – one Direct Reporting (DR) Boss and the other, a Subject Matter Expertise (SME) Boss. The latter had the habit of challenging anything and everything that was written and marked to his attention.

To make it worse, SME Boss would copy everyone and anyone on his emails. Jokingly, DR Boss and our team coined it the Knee Jerk Reaction emails because a simple email would turn into a dialogue which would only come to an end when Top Boss (who was blind copied by SME boss and us) would read, or rather email the Riot Act to all involved.

In all fairness, SME boss was responsible if anything went wrong and he must have been pretty stressed out. There was however consensus that the writing style, the copies and blind copies could have been more discreet. No Vice President wants to be written down to in front of his subordinates. He alienated all of us. If there was any good that came out of this, then it must have been the creation of a strong group bond that years later, we are all still in touch and any meet-up includes war stories of Knee Jerk Boss which was our nick-name for him. 

Since then, I have had clients with the same Knee Jerk issue which creates problems for them, not to mention many a sleepless night. Reasons that have been volunteered after much introspection include trying to correct wrong information crucial to the decision-makers, wanting to be pro-active (I don’t for a minute think Covey had that in mind) or the feeling that by giving suggestions, their careers would advance since all the important people were reading their input and would notice their calibre.

When I ask what the client was feeling at the moment of writing the email that creates a nightmare, 8 times out of 10, they admit that it was written when they were under pressure working towards a deadline or pre-occupied with another task. A short while later; they themselves realized that they had started the unproductive game of ping-pong emails.

Did the email recall work? Not necessarily as the email was already read by the person now readying to hit the ball back.

Was it a one-off event? No; quite regularly in fact.

Was it accepted that a Knee Jerk reaction had taken place? An emphatic yes!

Unfortunately, once you get into the habit of Knee Jerk reaction, it becomes second nature to you.

Fortunately, Knee Jerk Reaction is a habit, not a disease and habits can be changed. If you practice something 15 times consecutively, you improve the chances of creating a new habit. If you can abstain from doing a particular habitual action for 30 days, you can break the habit. Caveat – keep at it.

The first and most difficult step is to accept that you are actively Knee Jerking at the sight of particular emails.

The next step is to do a spot of introspection and ask yourself, what prompts you go into this unhelpful mode. What is your goal, motive or agenda, if any?

Identify the triggers and note them down if necessary.

Think of the consequences that can happen if you send out the Knee Jerk Reaction email. Will it affect your career, your working relationship with your boss, colleagues or subordinates?

Is it worth spending nights agonizing over that 1 email that you then had to spend time clarifying and explaining yourself? Is the self-induced stress really, really worth it?

If your answer is No More Agonizing for me, then here is a method to overcome this habit and it works.

You know you have a tendency to hit the reply button when you see certain emails. You have identified the triggers and how you react.

The secret is to break the cycle. In other words, stop before your Email Knee Jerk Reaction stops your career.

To do that, here are some ideas. Choose one or all, the important thing is that it works for you.

The minute you see that email, understand that the trigger has been activated.

Remove yourself from the vicinity of your computer for at least 10 minutes. Take a short walk to the water fountain, go to the loo, hit the print button and saunter off to collect the print-out. Step outside of the office if necessary. In other words, distance yourself from the potentially explosive situation.

Turn away from the computer screen and do some breathing exercises or even chant a mantra or recite affirmations under your breath until the urge to hit the Reply All button subsides.

Go and chat with a colleague about any other work matter that is productive for both of you. Call your Mom, anybody who has your confidence really.

Consider muting your Inbox if that is at all possible.

Once you know that the urge to write a Knee Jerk email has passed, think carefully about how you need to proceed. Does the email really have to be sent? Do you need to do a Reply All or just a direct reply to the sender of the email? Is it something that you can actually go up to the sender or call on the phone and discuss? Do you need to set up a meeting or teleconference to discuss your input?

You might actually have some important input to contribute but if your style alienates others, then that contribution is seen as a nuisance and you reduce the value of your words and affect your career development. Think about it.

Do you suffer or know someone who suffers from the Knee Jerk Reaction? How do you manage it? Please do share your tips with us.


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16 Responses to “How to stop your Email Knee Jerk Reaction before it stops your Career”

  1. Sharon O'Day says:

    Awareness of this behavior is such a critical first step. Only once we’re aware of what triggers a behavior do we have even a slight chance of changing it!

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Absolutely, Sharon. Awareness of our triggers is the first step to problem solving. Thanks for visiting my blog. Wishing you a great week ahead!

  2. Anne Allen says:

    Great tips, Vatsala! I really like the idea of muting the inbox, I’m going to give that a try!

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Thank you Anne! It does work and productivity improves as there is less distraction. Thanks for dropping by Anne.

  3. Great article! Vatsala, this is valuable information for corporate environments where people are working very hard and can barely manage their time and efforts. Even as a business owner by myself, I turn off the email program when I’m writing.

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Thanks Barbara. Email checking can be quite unproductive if not kept under control. I mean, how do you tell your boss that you did not get a report finished because you were checking emails and responding every 10-15 minutes?

  4. Anita says:

    Great insight here and I too highly recommend ‘muting’ the inbox 🙂

  5. Some great tips here, I also advocate muting the inbox and also training yourself to only check emails a few times a day

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Thank you, Mike for endorsing the time management tips where we have direct control over our habits and actions. Adept Email Management is an important habit for time management.

  6. The first step is always admitting you have a problem IF you want to get rid of it. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Thanks for visiting my blog, Norma. I agree, once you admit that there is a problem, it comes out into the open and then the first action-oriented steps can be taken to solve the problem.

  7. Yes awareness is the key – once you can admit something to yourself the steps to creating better habits becomes much more accessible!

    I love the ‘muting’ the in-box idea – an excellent de-stress tool 🙂

  8. Liz Bigger says:

    YES, I have had knee jerk boss and I have had to STOP myself from being that person too! I is so easy to hit send on something before we really think about the repercussions! This is a great thing to address when trying to be more productive in a day! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Karmic Ally says:

      Thanks for visiting Liz. I know where you are coming from! A Boss is supposed to be a role model but not a good model if we start to emulate their bad practices!

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I believe the world would be a better place if high achieving professionals accepted setbacks and challenges to their careers as Wake Up Calls to embark on a Journey where their empowered course correcting actions create a New World Order that encompasses achieving their career aspirations & potential with authentic life balance.

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