What Is An EMail?

{Note: Team transformation stories from Polaris Institute members are published anonymously to allow the members to share openly and honestly. This story is from “Jeffrey L.”)

We had Anna in to lead a Polaris workshop on team communication and innovation a few weeks back. I knew there was a lot of friction between members of our team and couldn’t seem to get everyone to work smoothly together. What we discovered during the session was that the problems we were experiencing were actually symptoms of underlying fundamental issues where we were all (literally) seeing different realities.

If you haven’t had the “gray squares” experience yet, you need to see it. Our folks were blown away by it. It showed us how we were all acting on things that look true to us but that each of us was seeing a different “true” reality. This was creating a ton of stress between team members. Let me give you a specific example that really opened all of our eyes.

What is an email?

It’s a simple question. We all know what email is. We send and receive them many times per day. But when Anna really got people to open up, it turned out that there were HUGE differences in the way people viewed what email is and should be. Here are four of our examples from our team:

  • A creative medium for strategic exploration – For this person, email was a chance to write expansive messages exploring a variety of angles on big picture issues. It was an opportunity for him to share deep ideas and concepts with the team that they could digest in depth at their leisure and add their own ideas to the discussion.
  • A medium for maximum tactical efficiency – This person was adamant that emails should be as short as possible. Two sentences was considered long. Email was a place to simply check-in and check off–nothing else. There were other meetings and places for longer discussions and communications.
  • A live stream of real-time response – This person viewed email as almost like a live chat where any delay in responding to (i.e. weighing in on) a topic meant that you would be shut out of the decision-making process and sidelined from important initiatives.
  • An irritant to be ignored – This person saw email as an intrusion on “real” work and an endless time drain where other people could hijack your focus away from what was truly important. He believed that if there was anything really crucial, someone would track him down to let him know about it. As a result, he hardly ever replied to any emails.

No wonder we’re all irritated

As you can imagine, once these (and many other!) “realities” were out on the table, everyone could see why there was so much frustration–and why communications were so bad on the team. What we had to do was align our realities through discussion to agree as a group how we’d use email as a tool. I know that “what is an email?” is really fundamental and doesn’t sound like something for a high-level management team to spend time on, but I can tell you it completely changed the dynamic for our group–in fact, it helped turn them from a group into a TEAM.


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