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e-Mail Wars

How many times have you been placed in a front seat to an e-mail war carried out by two members of your project team? The war starts innocently enough with an e-mail that identifies an error (or what the author perceives as an error) on the part of the recipient. You may or may not be copied on this initial e-mail, but you will be copied on the next and all the subsequent e-mails. The initial e-mail may or may not be politely worded, may or may not identify an actual mistake. It is taken as an insult by the recipient, the recipient responds to the e-mail, using the "reply all" option and the war is on.

These wars are typically precipitated by a difference of opinion. In the world of software development, the dispute is often caused by a difference of opinion on coding styles. The cause becomes insignificant as the war heats up. Soon the ether is thick with "flaming" e-mails which contain lots of CAPITAL letters, bolded text, italics, and exclamation marks!!!!!!! Soon you can't visit your inbox without encountering one of these gems which you are copied on.

You probably aren't the only one copied on these e-mails (indeed you may not be copied at all if you have exhibited an intolerance to this behaviour in the past). Some who are copied will recognize the e-mails for what they are and ignore them, others will be drawn into the battle and may respond with opinions supporting one side or the other. The longer the battle goes on, the more damage is done to morale and the more productivity is hampered.

Treat these e-mails as cries for help. The authors of the mails will not care to describe their reasons in those terms; they will tell you that they are C.Y.A.ing, or copying you "for your information" but they are really a cry for help. You have a conflict on your hands and it is now time for you to employ your conflict resolution skills.

The first step is to arrange a meeting with the two combatants, the sooner the better. You can do this with an e-mail of your own, or (my preference) ask them to the meeting face to face. Tell your combatants that the purpose of the meeting is the resolution of the issue at the root of the dispute. Further, tell them that the 1/2 hour meeting must result in a decision which both combatants support and a cessation of e-mails. You will moderate the meeting and, if necessary, will make the final decision resolving the issue.

At the meeting, lay the ground rules:

  • the combatants must focus on a solution that will serve the goals and objectives of the overall project, not just their own work.
  • the combatants must avoid personal attacks, stick to describing the problem and the affect (they think) the problem is having on the project.
  • the combatants must listen to each other without interruption.
  • the combatants must propose solutions that they believe further the projects goals and objectives.
  • the combatants must be prepared to think of alternate solutions.

You needn't make a big production of these rules. Articulating them verbally will be sufficient. If you detect one or both of the combatants is not following your guidelines, stop the debate and point out the lapse. You should be able to identify the best solution for the project when both participants focus on solutions instead of their grudge. Frequently a solution is identified that neither had previously considered is the result, simply because of the flow of ideas that the face to face meeting encourages. If things don't go this way and you are forced to make a decision, be certain that you grasp the technical implications of it before committing to it. You may need to consult an SME external to the dispute to verify the solution.

Your objective here is to end the dispute, recover the team's morale as much as possible, and identify the best solution to the problem for your project, not necessarily in that order. Ensure that both participants can support the identified solution; they don't have to agree that it is the best solution, just be prepared to support it. If they can't support it, they stay in the room until a solution they can support is identified. If you determine that it falls to you to identify the solution and you have to consult an SME, tell the participants that you will inform them of your decision as soon as you reach it, then cut off further debate.

If the meeting goes smoothly and your participants identify a solution on their own, end the meeting on a positive note - no further intervention is necessary. Tell the participants that your expectation is that there will be no more e-mails going forward if the meeting doesn't end in agreement. Any further discussions necessary to implement the solution should be carried out face to face, or over the phone.

The trick here is to identify the war before serious damage is done to morale, then re-focus your combatants on the project rather than their personal differences. Keep in mind that you aren't running a social club; team members don't have to like one another, they just have to work effectively together. Keeping the meeting focused on the project and what is best for the project should impress this fact on your combatants.