Simon Terry

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Accountability and Email

The rise of digital networks is changing accountability in organisations. Hierarchy’s power to dictate is being eroded in favour of the voice and influence of the network.

Push The Story Better?

A common & failing response to the new internal and external accountability is for senior management to decide that we need a better job of getting their story out. This may take the form of a new marketing campaign, PR, letters to shareholders or even all staff emails.

Management choose these means of communication because there is little realistic prospect of a response. Only a tiny percentage of the audience traditionally replies to ads or PR messages. Not many more notice them. However by issuing one-way communications management has satisfied the challenge that something should be done.

While these approaches get a message out, they do not change the dynamic in an engaged network seeking authority and holding each other to account. An ‘official communication’, even that all too rare transparent and authentic communication, will be only one voice in a highly engaged conversation. That official message will have less influence without the support of champions to hold a conversation around its content, to answer queries and discuss objections.

Email is One-way

We see this experience play out in email. The surest way to avoid a conversation is email. No wonder email is so popular in management.

Email initially looks like a two-way communication choice but in practice emails down the hierarchy, whether to an individual or to all staff, are one-way media. Emails down the hierarchy are an exercise in pulling rank.

Only a brave employee will respond to the display of rank with an exercise in speaking back to power. If there is a response, it will be small scale and private. Nothing that can’t be managed.

An all staff email doesn’t start a conversation. It is usually an effort to end a conversation that is inconvenient. The effort to end the conversation is one reason these days that all staff email will inevitably leak. Frustrated by the message, employees respond externally.

Email appeals to management because it is a great way to push message or task and rely on the privacy and power gap to silence any objection.

Email is an Evasion of Accountability

Email is also commonly used as a way to avoid difficult conversations. Emails are sent to avoid the relationships and engagement that creates accountability or holds people accountable.

‘I sent you an email’ is not an answer. It is an evasion. Any glance at the email servers of a major corporate will see too many emails sent to shift work, responsibility or information to others with the minimum amount of engagement.  Seeking clean industrial conversations, email offer a clean toneless way to avoid emotional human conversations & human relationships. In many cases all email does is move to do lists around the organisation.

Hierarchies seem to think that people can be held accountable by email. An email might allocate a responsibility but it is a slippery way to hold people to account for their actions or decisions. Holding someone to account for decisions requires a conversation built on trust, shared purpose and understanding. Email rarely delivers that much engagement and context.

There is no accountability without clarity of responsibility and consequence. Email does not assure clarity of responsibility. Worse, there is less consequence in an email conversation than a two-way and open conversation. Even the exertion of the power of rank in email is less effective than in a context where the social value of rank matters to the recipient and audience.

The best accountability is personal. Personal accountability arises from engagement in conversations to create shared purpose, trust and enduring relationships.

Email is Toneless 

One reason so much corporate communication and the messages of senior executives are tone deaf is that they are not used to being questioned or listening for a reaction. Tone improves with shared context and accountability. That clanging sound is a failure to understand the context and a failure to acknowledge personal accountability to others in pursuit of one’s own message. Think through how your message will be received and what queries others may have and your tone will be better. You have made yourself a little more accountable to the audience

That lack of tone can be devastating when a network holds the individual or an organisation to account for their emails.  What many organisations miss in creating these bureaucratic emails shifting accountability and avoiding responsibility is that they are also creating the records that will be used later to judge their decisions. Whether those emails become public through a leak or in discovery in court proceedings, the future accountability for decisions in the network will be through a review of the emails, often long out of the context in which they were sent. As a result, the broader networks are often holding people accountable for a poor choice communicated by email.

To improve accountability step out of your email, leave behind the hierarchy and engage others in an authentic two way conversation in the network. There will be benefits in your leadership approach, the relationships created and the performance of the organisation.

This post is the third in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:


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