The Dark Side of Electronic Communication

January 11, 2016

Individuals and organizations alike still rely on electronic mail (e-mail) as a primary communication tool to conduct business. A 2003 study, still relevant by today’s standards, by associate professors Raymond Friedman and Steven Currall, caution about using e-mail to resolve conflicts. While they do not specifically mention it, using other media for the same purpose should also give one pause. 

Based on their review of sociological literature, the authors suggest that escalation of disputes is more likely during electronic communication than during face-to-face conversation. They also recommend a number of ways to ameliorate the risk of escalation, concluding with a call for additional empirical research into e-mail’s impact on conflict management.

The authors define the following properties as present in face-to-face communication:

  • Co-presence (parties are in the same surroundings)
  • Visibility (parties see one another)
  • Audibility (parties hear speech timing and intonation)
  • Cotemporality (parties receive utterances as they are produced)
  • Simultaneity (parties send and receive messages at once)
  • Sequentiality (parties take turns)

It is easy to see how each property enables communicators to “ground” the interaction. In other words, they are able to achieve a shared understanding about the encounter and a shared sense of participation. They also allow participants to time and adjust their actions and reactions so as to move toward agreement. Grounding, timing, and adjusting are all critically important tools in successful conflict resolution.

In looking at e-mail communication, the authors state that e-mail exchanges take place in an antisocial context (participants are isolated at their computers), allow new tactics (such as lengthy messages or communications that bundle multiple arguments together) and are characterized by reviewability and revisability (communicators are able to re-read received messages and extensively shape their responses).

These properties, as well as the lack of those that are unique to face-to-face conversation, engender the following effects (which Friedman and Currall claim increase the risk of escalation during conflict processing):

  • Low feedback. Electronic communication generates little feedback such as clues about how a recipient is reacting to one’s message. As a result, participants cannot fluidly adjust their comments to repair missteps or clarify misunderstandings. Inadvertent insults and loss of face become more likely, and misunderstandings accumulate. Also, recipients can often perceive communication tactics as “heavier” than intended. This causes social bonds to weaken and the involved parties find it more difficult to resolve conflicts.
  • Reduced social cues. E-mail communication lacks the emotional expression found in face-to-face conversations; therefore, the parties rely more on the messages’ cognitive content to manage conflict. In addition, although e-mail participants often include greetings and other forms of “social lubrication” in their messages, the power of such rituals to remind people of social norms and rules declines significantly the longer the delay between message exchanges. When long delays exist, message recipients may respond in socially inappropriate ways – aggressively or not empathetically.
  • Length of messages. When a sender bundles multiple arguments in a lengthy e-mail message, the recipient may forget to respond to one or more arguments in the reply. Moreover, in crafting a response, the recipient may focus only on those arguments that he or she found most upsetting. When a sender believes that the recipient has ignored parts of the message, the sender may suspect a violation of interaction norms. Misunderstandings can accumulate, and inadvertent insults can become more likely.
  • Excess attention. Thanks to the properties of reviewability and revisability, online communicators can ruminate at length about received messages. Research suggests that rumination increases both angry mood and perceptions of a problem’s magnitude. Reviewability and revisability also permit elaborate editing of messages, which increases composers’ commitment to their arguments. The parties become less willing to compromise, begin depersonalizing one another and view the conflict as unresolvable.

The conclusions? Use face-to-face conversations or phone calls to discuss disputes. If e-mail cannot be avoided, then consider that the perceived insult may have been unintentional. Finally, the authors suggest that e-mail users can and should manage risk to resolve conflicts more productively.

Drugs and Workplace Productivity

August 11, 2015

Productivity doesn’t just happen. It takes focus and sustained effort to accomplish work tasks. However, the amount of focus and effort varies, depending on the difficulty of the task.

The opposite is also true. That is, non-productivity does “just happen.” It is so easy to be non-productive – that’s why many of us can slide into a weekend of rest and relaxation without any effort!

But while at work, it is important to do our best to be as productive as possible. And in order to do that, it is equally important to respect our bodies and not use substances that can inhibit our work performance. Ever.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually.

As well, workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who had two or fewer jobs.

And, an astounding 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2003 estimated that legal substances (tobacco and alcohol) account for 79.3% of the total cost of substance abuse, while illegal drugs account for 20.7% ($8.2 billion) of costs.

With the recent explosion of “medical marijuana” retailers, these numbers are estimated to increase. Employers now find themselves in a situation where they need to consider even more so the impacts of once-illicit drugs on their workforce. The impacts on work productivity are difficult to ignore.

I continue to be in awe and amazed at the silence of the medical community about the ill effects of cannabis (usually termed “marijuana”). In terms of the workplace, however, cannabis has an immediate and ongoing effect on productivity.

It has been documented that cannabis causes the following side effects (this is not a complete list):

  • Decreased focus
  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased alertness
  • Decreased memory and thinking capabilities
  • Decreased motivation – as such, this affects the employee’s ability to relate to their colleagues, clients and customers
  • Increased risk of developing dependence
  • Increased risk of respiratory illness
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Diminished relationships – think about how this impacts teamwork in the workplace with added pressure being placed on non-users including poor collaboration on projects (as an example)
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased risk of injury of self or others (resulting in loss of time and potential workers’ compensation)
  • Decreased driving performance

Of note is that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada, with 10.6% of Canadians reporting past-year use in 2012. As well, Canadian youth have the highest rate of past-year marijuana use (28% in 2009-2010) compared to student in other developed countries.

While governments are starting to “give in” to the demand for legalizing marijuana, this legalization has put the onus on organizations to conduct their own workplace drug testing. In addition, organizations need to ensure adequate workforce training in identifying potential drug use.

Human resource departments are now even more critical to the organizations’ functions to ensure the business’s bottom line is not being impacted by drug use.

One of the ways in which HR can help is to build relationships with managers and employees. When you know someone, it’s much easier to identify changes in behaviour and productivity and to provide proper intervention.

In addition, implementing policies and procedures will help all workers be aware of the signs and symptoms of drug use. Much like personal issues or inter-staff and management issues, keeping substance use/abuse top-of-mind helps to identify the problem, so it can be addressed quickly.

 

Capitalizing on Strengths

June 13, 2015

Do you feel “stuck” in a job? Even before the workday is done, can you hardly wait to get out of the office? If so, you may be in the wrong job. 

Feeling stuck may be a sign that you are not using your strengths on the job. If you aren’t using your strengths, resentment builds and frustration ensues. Not only that, you are not being productive on the job – think “deadwood” and you’ll get the idea! Let me explain.  

Let’s say that you’re a decision-maker by nature. But you find yourself in a job where you neither contribute nor make organization-wide decisions. As a result, you second-guess the organization’s decisions and you start resenting its decision-makers. On top of this, you start to dislike your boss and co-workers because you see them as part of the problem.  

You might say that you can’t help it – you need to work somewhere. Fair enough – most of us end up in temporary jobs that are nothing more than a way to pay the bills. But for long-term career happiness and productivity, you need to understand your strengths.  

In addition to identifying our strengths, we need to understand how we work best. And how we work best depends on our personality.  

Our personality determines how we perform, no matter what it is that we do – from how we organize our breakfast in the morning to how we process our daily tasks to how we relate to people. Each of us has an inherent capability of how we manage our “to-do’s.” 

But consider this fact:  While our habits can be modified, few (if any) people can outright change either their strengths or habits. Instead, what we can do is identify our strengths and habits and then choose to improve both in a way that moves us further in our careers. 

Here are five ways that you can improve your strengths and use them to catapult your career to the next level. 

  1. Pay attention to feedback. What do others say about your strengths? What do they notice about you? Sometimes, we instinctively know what we’re good at, but for whatever reason, we become blind to our strengths. It may take several people to point out your strengths before you start to pay attention.
  2. Tune in to your performance. How do you produce your best work? Is it by working alone or in teams? Do you prefer to learn through reading, listening, or viewing? What time of day are you most productive and why at that time? By understanding “how” we work, we will be able to understand the unique characteristics of what comprises an ideal work day for us and when we are most productive.
  3. Notice what gives you energy. When working on a task, does it make you feel tired, bored, overwhelmed, interested, or is the work challenging? Does the task motivate you to work even harder to get the job done? Do you feel alive? If the work makes you feel so energized (even if you’re physically tired), then that’s the type of work you need to be doing.
  4. Do not comprise your values. The place where you work must reflect your own values. The organization’s policies should be in line with their practices. In other words, the organization should practice what it preaches. If your beliefs are in line with the organization’s culture, then you have a match made in heaven.
  5. Contribute like there’s no tomorrow. Based on your strengths, work on improving the organization’s systems, processes, methods, policies, and other practices. This will serve to not only make a positive difference to the organization, but also to help you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you can feel as if you have accomplished something, you know your strengths are serving you well.

Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Substitute “career” for the word “luck” and you can see how our strengths can be used to build happy and productive careers.

 

 

 

The Value of Analysis Done Right

May 24, 2015

Recently, I “re-discovered” that analytical skills are not common. In fact, a recent assignment demonstrated that many people tend to skim the surface and propose recommendations without doing the necessary analytical work.

Now, this may sound like a really good thing – why go through all the trouble of analyzing when you know what needs doing? The way I see it, there are several problems with this approach.

The first problem is that providing recommendations without investigation and evidence will result in “band aid” solutions. What organization wants to mop up the spill without finding and fixing the leak?  

The second problem is that without an examination and explanation of the situation, there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes a problem. Even more important, the root cause of the problem may be missing. 

The third problem is that recommendations built on instinct are not valid. While your judgment may be accurate, not everyone thinks like you do. That is why careful examination and explanation of the situation is required to draw meaningful recommendations.  

Applying analytical thought requires one to look at a situation objectively. Analysis goes beyond describing what is occurring (many people are good at this part). It provides both an examination and explanation of the situation. And examinations and explanations require asking and answering several questions about the situation. The most common question is “why.” 

There are several ways to conduct an analysis, but here are a few simple steps that can help you “collect” your thoughts for easier review. The steps also provide a basis for solid analysis.

  1. Collect data about the situation and place it in an “issues template.” A spreadsheet is useful for this purpose.  
    1. Give your template four headings: Issue, Possible Causes, Other Relationships and Impacts, Possible Resolutions.
    2. Based on your data, list all the issues you uncover under the “issue” column. When completed, start “analyzing” one issue at a time and complete the related columns for that issue – i.e., possible causes, other relationships and impacts, and possible resolutions.
    3. Group your issues into major categories, as appropriate. (You may have main issues and sub-issues).
  2. Using your “issues template,” examine and explain the following (this will comprise your report).
    1.  Situation. Discuss the situation where the issue exists. Use evidence from your data to support your discussion about the situation(s).
    2. Relationships and Impacts. Based on the situation discussion, include possible relationships and impacts that are influencing the situation. As well, discuss how the situation is impacting (or potentially impacting) other areas of the organization.
    3. Needs/Recommendations. Based on your discussion of the above and taking into consideration possible causes and possible resolutions for the issue, discuss what needs to happen in the organization to correct the issue.

If you are able to support your recommendations with evidence from your analysis, then it is easier to convince readers that your recommendations are valid. In the words of Edward Deming, “In God we trust, but for everything else, bring data.”

Before You Buy That New iGadget

April 25, 2015

Recent promos for the latest new technology gave me pause. And it should give you pause, too.

There is no doubt that we are a society of “must-have-the-latest-new-toy,” but have you thought about what happens to your old technology – those smartphones, laptops, printers, and other energy-emitting devices that you no longer wish to use? What is your old technology doing to Mother Earth?

You might say that you are responsible and recycle your old electronics. Good for you. And I bet many recycling depots do a decent job of ensuring safe recycling practices. But some old electronics may fall through the cracks.

In August 2009, CBS revealed some startling evidence (as only 60 Minutes can!) about old electronics being shipped illegally to countries like China where the dismantling of the equipment is hurting (understatement) the people and the environment. You can see the show here: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-wasteland-50076351/.

If the 60 Minutes investigation does not give you pause, perhaps the following might.  

A report by Liam Young and Kate Davies of the Unknown Fields Division traces the supply chain of the global economy in reverse. Their research brings the point home (literally).

After the 60 Minutes expose aired, the Chinese government tried to clean-up Guiyu’s booming e-waste operation. However, Young and Davies state “that what really happened is that it went underground – or more specifically, inside.”

“Actually what happened is that the industry has moved from the street and into peoples’ houses,” he says. “So now this new form of mining is now a domestic industry, where a circuit board bubbles away to refine the copper next to a pot of noodles in someone’s kitchen.”

“It’s too easy for people to sit in an air conditioned flat in New York or London, tweeting on laptops and talking on their phones about the horrors of the rare earth mining industry or cheap production and exploitative labor in China,” Young says.

The reality is much worse.

Young and Davies collected some of the toxic mud created from recycled technology and created “lovely” toxic sludge vases. These vases are part of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which opened on April 22, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan summarizes the journey of the vases in a report titled “These Vases are Actually Made From Liquefied Smartphone ByProducts.” Here’s an excerpt:

“The mud that makes up each of these vessels was carefully drawn from a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia, where the sludge from the world’s most prolific Rare Earth Element refineries ends up. It was brought to London, where a ceramicist in a hazmat suit worked to turn it into actual pottery, representing the waste created by a smartphone, a featherweight laptop, and a car battery. Starting today at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibit What Is Luxury?, you’ll be able to see each vase in person—a stark visualization of exactly what’s involved in building your electronics.”

After reading Campbell-Dollaghan’s report, I learned that our smartphones each have about 380 grams of toxic and radioactive waste. Think about that the next time you go to answer or make a call on your smartphone.

The questions before us are simple: 

  1. How much newer-better-luxury stuff do we really need?
  2. At what point will manufacturers take responsibility for killing the planet?
  3. What can be done now to reverse the damage?

The answers to the questions are probably not as simple.