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A painful lesson regarding e-mail

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in Office Management,Workplace Communication

Q. I am a technical assistant. My supervisor misunderstood the tone of an e-mail I sent her, where I was questioning a decision she made. She became very angry. When she calmed down, she said she could write me up for insubordination. I explained that the e-mail was not intended to imply the negative tone she read, and I apologized for any misunderstanding (which she accepted). Now there’s a bitter aftertaste. I find myself avoiding her and limiting my e-mail to business only, with no personable comments. I also feel she’s discounting my ideas. I’m so distraught that I’m considering seeking employment elsewhere, although I’ve been here 23 years and have an excellent record. Can you help?

A. At least you learned a painful lesson regarding e-mail. Limiting your e-mail to an all-business tone is smart. When you have an opinion to express, especially when you’re questioning a boss’s decision, it’s best to carefully prepare what you say and then deliver it face to face, where you increase the odds that you won’t be misunderstood. (Or, if you are in the midst of a communication breakdown, at least you can promptly correct any misunderstanding in person so that it doesn’t fester.)

If you prefer to send e-mail, always compose the message and wait at least one full day before sending it. This gives you a chance to review it later and ensure that your tone fits the spirit of your message.

As to your current situation, you’ve got to repair your relationship with your boss. Here’s how:

Make the boss look good. Spread positive stuff about her to your staff, coworkers and her bosses. Drop subtle comments on how much you admire her handling of a recent challenge, and it’ll probably get back to her.

Play the selfless martyr. The usual reaction of someone in your situation is to double the amount of ideas you suggest in an increasingly desperate attempt to regain your standing. But that’s not going to work. For now, ease up in presenting your views and suggestions. Instead, tackle the least desirable task your boss faces—the one dreaded project she has repeatedly said needs to get done (cleaning out old bookcases, updating computer files, etc.). That symbolic act of contrition could lead to a reconciliation.

Be direct. Say to her, “I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been avoiding you since that e-mail incident. I want you to know that I’ve learned a lesson about communication snafus involving email, and I want to clarify some things.”

While painful and nerve wracking, the direct approach probably works best. Muster the courage to address the matter head-on, and you come across as a confident, straightforward individual.

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