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Jay Young

It Takes All the Running You Can Do, to Keep in the Same Place

Harford Business Ledger: August 2005

There is probably universal agreement among those engaged in business that things these days have become far more complicated, difficult, time consuming and just plain busier. One very unfortunate consequence of all this is a growing lack of patience, tolerance and civility. Voice mail, e-mail, text messages, faxes and other technological advances increase impersonal communication and diminish or even eliminate human interaction, until in the end you can get the job done through the use of technology alone. These increasingly numerous impersonal communications also seem to be becoming less polite -- and more terse.

Normally, in a face-to-face meeting, people begin by exchanging pleasantries, bidding one another a good morning and probably making some comment about the weather, a recent news item of general interest, or even a sporting event ("how 'bout dem O's?"). Generally, no such pleasantries are included in an e-mail, a text message or a fax. And the frequency with which business is conducted in this fashion is increasing dramatically. There are now occasions where an entire transaction is completed without a face-to-face meeting between parties ever occurring. This simply could not have happened twenty years ago, or maybe even ten years ago.

Another developing phenomenon which adds complication, pressure and tension is the ability to use technology to impose obligations unilaterally. In other words, without your knowing it, someone can put the ball in your court and expect a response -- when, metaphorically, you're still in the clubhouse! Take this example: it's been a busy day, and you check your voice mail at 4:00 pm -- only to learn that someone had set up a conference call for 2:00 pm or expected you to perform a task or read a document or provide some input, and had imposed a deadline that had passed before you even received the message!

Evidently, in today's world business people believe that a deadline may be established simply by its having been recorded on a voice mail system or transmitted by e-mail. And, in this way, e-mail is much worse than voice mail. Thanks to e-mail's flexibility, senders can transmit large documents practically instantaneously electronically -- together with an obligation for the recipient or an expectation on the sender's part with no regard as to whether or not the recipient can meet the obligation or fulfill the expectation! Somehow, emotionally and mentally, the burden has been shifted by the simple act of clicking "send."

To use a term originating with the electric power grid but applicable to today's e-world: instantaneous communication causes overloads. Everything becomes equally urgent (whether or not it really is), because everything is equally immediate. Too much simultaneous input will then necessarily lead to a clogged response (at best), and disappointment on the part of the originator. It can also be very frustrating to receive multiple e-mails with overlapping content before even having the chance to respond! Frustration contributes to an increasing lack of civility in business relations, which ultimately translates into decline in personal relations.

So why am I writing about this? Simply to raise your awareness of these issues and to issue a general call for more civility in business. Begin now: re-evaluate the urgency of the obligations you impose upon your employees, your co-workers, your consultants, your accountants, and, please, your attorneys. Throw a "good morning" or a "good afternoon" into the first line of your e-mail (and mean it!). Consider the time constraints and the circumstances of your voice mail and e-mail recipients and do NOT impose unilateral obligations.

Remember -- these days, most of us spend more time with those with whom we do business than we do with our spouses and our families. When all is said and done, the greater part of our entire lives will have been spent working. It is therefore especially important that we make the work experience as pleasant and as enjoyable as possible. Take a breath and try to do a few things each day to make your business life and your relationships with those with whom you do business more pleasant, enjoyable and fun. Thank you -- and -- "have a great day."

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