Sunday, October 23, 2011

Embarrassing E-mails


A firm moved an architect off a project because of tensions he had created with other members of the team. A colleague in the office then sent e-mails to others in the office protesting his move and urging others to do the same. Her e-mails not only got back to the partners in the firm, but to clients and consultants, embarrassing all involved.
 

Electronic mail and social media of various sorts have obviously made communications among people not located in the same place much faster and easier. This has enhanced the productivity of workers and the speed with which work gets done, but it also presents risks not often encountered with face-to-face or even written communications that had to be typed and mailed. Electronic communications now makes it too easy for someone to send an intemperate message to a large number of people, any of whom can forward it on to others not meant to see it.

Temperance remains one of the central tenets of virtue ethics. While that word has acquired others connotations, such as abstinence from alcohol, the term originally meant restraint, control, and most importantly, self-control. The temperate person knows when to speak and when to keep quiet, when to act and when not to. And temperance works both ways, not only for the person initiating an action, but also for those who must decide how to respond to it.

Electronic communications requires that we pay attention to temperance as never before. The rising incidence of teenagers bullying each other on social media shows how much we need to teach the value of temperance and to give children the tools to know how to deal with the intemperance of others. The same goes for the workplace. Colleagues and co-workers need to temper the urge to act intemperately and to temper their responses to others who don’t.

As this case suggests, we don’t always know where intemperate behavior begins. Did the person creating tension on the project team act intemperately and so deserve to be reassigned or did the partner in charge of the project act too rashly in making that reassignment? Whatever the specifics of that situation, however, it seems clear that the person who sought to provoke a protest in the office via e-mail did not think through the consequences of her decision before she acted. Would she have sent those messages if she knew that her call for insurrection would get read by the leadership of the firm as well as the client and consultants? Probably not, unless she didn’t care whether or not she kept her job.

That raises the question of what the leadership in the firm should do, given what happened. Should they fire her for insubordination, or would that simply add another intemperate act on top of hers? Temperance becomes more difficult the more intemperate others have been, which makes it all the more important to model self-control in situations like this. The power and persuasiveness of leaders lie in their ability, as Rudyard Kipling put it, to keep their heads when others are losing theirs, and so not reacting rashly becomes a way of demonstrating leadership and showing others where it lies.

Rather than fire the messenger, the head of the firm asked her to apologize to all who had received her e-mail and told her that she must never do such a thing again, to which she agreed. But as so often happens to the intemperate, her colleagues shunned her after that incident; she soon left the firm and is now living in a more temperate clime.


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