October, 2012

Email Hell: When the Written Work Is Not Your Friend

It’s news to no one that people are emboldened to say things in writing that they would never say in person.  The scorching email is a case in point.  But most of us are beyond the flame thrown message.  Now the email game is much more sophisticated and nuanced.  Even if you’re straightforward, to the point, and non-manipulative via email, it doesn’t mean your colleagues are.

My list of what I consider really bad email manners grows every day.  Some new offenses:

Having a personal gripe with an individual and cc’ing their supervisor without first giving the individual the opportunity for dialogue and clarification;

Getting a personal email from someone and replying in a hostile way with cc’s to colleagues and supervisors;

Forwarding a person’s email without his/her permission to people he/she never intended to send it to;

Intentionally including marginally involved but powerful people on an email list as a way to posture and position oneself; and

Treating email as a communication process conducted totally divorced from face to face communication so that email becomes a separate but parallel universe much like Facebook is for most professional folks. 

If you’ve spent any time working in a large organization (and were successful), you probably know how to play office politics.  The next generation of email warfare is a couple of steps above that.  Words are powerful; incendiary.  Email empowers people who are good with words and know how to maneuver. 

What are my solutions?  It’s pretty simple.  I give the same advice I gave my kids when one would mercilessly taunt the other.  Don’t take the bait.  But, also, don’t be the lone sheep in a wolf den.  Be smart but above it all.  Don’t allow people to use your words against you. This means, in the end, you should be as careful about what you say and how you say it via email as you would in a meeting sitting across the table from someone. 

It’s tough, I know, but it can be done.  You’ll be ahead of the game because you don’t play the game, if you get my drift.









Here’s a good resource on email etiquette:

Tell a Good Story

Last week, it hit me.  What I like to hear from a speaker is a good story.

I had the opportunity to attend the Wisconsin Commercial Real Estate Women’s (WCREW) Annual Awards Dinner.  There, I listened to a dozen award winners thank WCREW; and then thank their funders, family, friends, neighbors, the beat cop and the mailman.  Well, you get the idea.  It was yawn, triple yawn.

Then Howard Snyder from the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (CDC) went to the podium to accept an award for Villard Square, the city’s first grandfamily housing development with a new City of Milwaukee library on the first floor.  (Full disclosure: we’re related.)

In the space of two minutes, he told four stories.  First, he recognized the City Housing Authority for the award it had just won for the renovation of West Lawn, noting that he worked there for six years as a youth worker and loved driving by and seeing how beautiful it was now.  Then, he noted that it took eight years for the neighborhood’s demands for a new Villard Library to be realized and talked about how happy he was when he looked in the window of the new library and saw a father reading to his daughter.  Then he told the crowd that every Saturday he takes his granddaughter to the library to check out books and puppets.  And he closed by saying that the event organizers asked him to speak about what he was proud of.  So he did.

Afterward, person after person came up to Howard to tell him how much they liked his remarks, how he gave the best speech of the evening, and how it made them think about why they were really doing real estate projects, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

It hadn’t hit me until then.  The difference between ‘ho-hum, when is this going to be over?’ and ‘hey, this person is really interesting, I hope he talks for a while longer’ is telling a good story.

Next time, you’re called upon for a speech or remarks, remember this.  It could make people sit still and listen.


Buck Up, Buttercup: How to Handle Bad News

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who want to know they have cancer and those who want to pretend that the stomach ache they’ve had for six months is about eating too many hot peppers. Which type are you?  More to the point, which type is your organization?

Some organizations will do anything to avoid hearing bad news.  They’ll eschew feedback on projects, proposals, and presentations for fear that someone will say something negative.  They’ll delay program reports and outcome analysis sensing that results won’t be good enough and funders will withdraw their support.  They’ll let staff or board conflict smolder, deciding it’s easier to paper over problems than put them on the table where they could be examined and solved.

This behavior engenders a type of organizational pretending that can drive good staff people and board members to distraction.  What they know to be real and what the leadership of the organization is recognizing as real become wildly divergent.  It can be crazy-making.

Of course, people and organizations can be so attuned to bad news that the downside ends up being all they see.  Everything is cancer in this scenario.

But assuming you’re in a relatively normal organization situation, how do you help your colleagues learn to handle bad news, to sit up straight like grown-ups and not dissolve to tears like the little man in the picture.  Here’s some ideas for working with your organization’s staff as a team:

Practice.  Start with honestly surfacing and solving little problems.  Use staff and board meetings to identify situations that may be interfering with the organization’s success and implement a process to solve them.  The NIATx process improvement methodology is a time-tested strategy to identify problems, test new approaches, and measure results.  Very valuable.

Escalate.  Increase the level of difficulty and complexity of the problems to be surfaced and addressed.

Depersonalize. Disconnect people from problems.  For many people, their entire identity is tied up in who they are on the job.  The demarcation between their own identity and that of the organization is lost; in essence, they are merged.  In this situation, surfacing a problem in an organization is immediately threatening personally to the person who thinks he/she is responsible. A problem that is not entangled in someone’s ego has a much greater chance of being solved.

Demystify. Hidden problems grow horns.  Exposed problems shrink in importance and impact.  Seriously, what you don’t know when you run an organization is going to hurt you as a staff person and your organization as a healthy entity a whole lot more than what you do know.  If you know you have cancer, you can go to an oncologist, get treatment, live through it, and go on charity walks to raise money for cancer research.  If you don’t know you have cancer but think you do, you can just stew and wring your hands while it gets worse.

Improve.  Every problem that is solved makes an organization stronger and healthier.  Not only does the practice of problem-solving exercise important team-building and technical skills, it drives improved quality – in everything from direct service to financial management to organizational behavior.

The nonprofit landscape is littered with organizations that refused to face their problems at a time when they could actually be solved.  They waited until Father Death was actually sitting with his sickle in the waiting room and then decided that it was time to problem-solve.  Too late, my friends.  The time is at the beginning when you still think the stomach ache that’s ruining your day could actually be the result of last night’s habanero peppers.

Was It Worth It? How to Create Metrics for Events

Events are terrific.  If you’ve worked for a nonprofit organization, you have probably been involved in planning, staffing or cleaning up after an event.  It could be a neighborhood clean-up or back to school fair.  An event can be a promotion for a new program or a way to identify potential clients. 

When I managed Community Involvement at the Social Development Commission, we put on a slew of events, gave away thousands of hotdogs and neighborhood swag, like tote bags and refrigerator magnets with community service phone numbers on them. One communitywide planning event had an auditorium full of neighborhood residents doing a conga line through the aisles to the beat of an Indian drum. This made us all feel terrific.

But what did it really mean?  Most of the time, event organizers/sponsors use three metrics to decide if an event was worth the investment: 1) number of participants; 2) number of problems with the event; and 3) how happy we feel.  An event that fills the room, doesn’t have a catastrophe like running out of food, and leaves us humming while we clean up is an absolute success.

Is it possible to do a better, more substantive evaluation of an event?  Absolutely!

Here are some ideas to consider:

1.  Survey participants.  Yes, I know.  No one wants to interrupt the Kumbaya moment with a clipboard and a checklist.  A quick, post-card survey with 3 to 5 questions can provide actual data that can be used to determine what participants thought was valuable, what other information or resources they might like, and what potential impact the event will have on their lives.  The West Allis Health Department conducts an annual event called Two for the Show which is a developmental screening with various ‘stations’ to assess toddlers’ speech, large and small muscle development, and other developmental milestones.  This is one of the Health Department’s primary ways of identifying children in need of Birth to Three services so they are able to track identification of children with developmental challenges as they show up in the Birth to Three program.  Over and above that, however, the Health Department conducts a survey of each Two for the Show parent. Very smart strategy – makes funders happy and helps shape the next event.

2.  Service utilization. This is a variation of ‘tell them Fred sent you.’  Since many events, like the events we used to hold at SDC, are geared toward encouraging program participation in programs like Head Start or energy assistance, it is very helpful to connect participants’ attendance at the event with the eventual enrollment in a program.  This can be as simple as handing someone a card and asking them to mention the event when they call the program and offering some benefit for doing so.  This could be expedited enrollment or a small premium like a McDonald’s gift certificate.  Anything that helps you as the event organizer connect your event to later program participation is a big plus as you seek support for next year’s effort. 

3.  Tracking What Happens Next.  Events are often the vehicle for addressing a community need or problem.  Generally, the event creates several work groups with the hopes that when people leave they are willing to work on specific tasks in order to achieve an agree-upon goal.  Very often, big community organizing events are unable to translate to dynamic, robust work groups and so the energy and promise of the event just dissipates.  Vision Sherman Park, a tremendously inspirational community planning event that brought together observant Jews, African American, and White residents for a day of planning and dialogue, had a less vibrant transition to work groups.  That experience toward me that assessment of the follow-up is critical.  What happened afterward?  Who stayed involved?  Who didn’t?  What can be improved next time?

Ultimately, it’s all about a critical eye that looks beyond the momentary happiness of a ‘successful’ event to examine its true value and impact.  It’s not difficult, but it takes take planning and commitment.  When your next event rolls around, try to take a harder look at the issue of metrics.  I think it will pay off for you.