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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