How to Handle the Email Power Play
Many of us are familiar with power plays in face-to-face encounters at work. We’ve all been there when a boss or older colleague pulls away physically, deliberately turns toward another teammate in a meeting, or suddenly stops making friendly gestures. Or maybe a teammate begins interrupting you in meetings, leaving you out, or rushing you along, signaling she’s just too busy to chat.
In the digital sphere, power-plays are just as common and, some might argue, more pernicious. Online, we’re presented with a host of new ways to engage in power plays, and a screen to shield us from admitting we’re doing so. We can “forget” to CC our colleague, send a slightly unfriendly or scolding follow up, or opt for a cursory, one-word Slack message. Or we can deliberately delay a reply, start with a passive-aggressive “Per my last email”, or needlessly scold someone for their choice of words. (That CFO who gave you a scoldy reply to your perfectly polite email seems awful!) The effect of a pursed lip is now communicated with a punctuation mark or a vague sign off.
And then some of us might be wrongly accused of digital power plays. These days, an ellipses can signal anything from passive aggressiveness to disdain. In this way, digital body language exaggerates the messages we send, resulting in intentional and unintentional power plays. So how do we avoid getting bogged down online?
Trust Reduces Misunderstanding
First, we need to have a good understanding of any gaps in trust and power that exist between ourselves and others, which should determine how we communicate with them. By trust, I mean our level of familiarity and comfort with a colleague and by power, I mean our difference in hierarchy on the team.
We might feel a high gap in trust with a peer who is regularly unresponsive to our messages, or with a peer who seems to only respond when the boss is CC’d. Or we might feel a moderate gap in trust with a peer from another team who says “Great job!” whenever you send her work. We can’t tell whether she’s being patronizing, or lazy, or if she just gives weird feedback.