Ego Hijacking!

ManEmailLate one night last week, an executive whom I coach sent out an irate email. The following morning as he logged on to find a flurry of “reply all’s” flying around the corporate space in response, he came to regret his haste in hitting the send button.  But the damage had already been done. He could only hang his head in shame and send a humbling apology to all involved. Unfortunately, the ripple effects on his reputation were irreversible.

So why did he do this? Why do any of us do this, because, let’s face it, we’ve all done it. Let’s unpack our executive’s reaction.

Obviously this man has some skills in order to have climbed to his current position. But when we are in the midst of a knee-jerk visceral reaction, we simply are not thinking clearly. The email this executive received, which in turn had him blast off his own heated email, was one in which he felt his integrity was being questioned and he was being undermined by one of his peers. This executive has a “hot button,” or sensitivity, to others questioning his integrity and to being undermined. Any resemblance to these situations can cause him to get angry. Combined they created a nuclear response.

Recognizing our hot buttons and taking a pause before responding in such situations can save a ton of time. In this example, one email created hours of corporate churn with responses to the responses, days spent cleaning up the mess and dealing with the aftermath, and endless water cooler conversations.

So what can be done to prevent such a fiasco in the first place? The first step is to notice your reactions. Is your heart rate going up? Your blood pressure rising? Do you have tightness in your chest? If you have a knee jerk reaction and feel like you must respond, don’t. Take a breath. Step away from the send button. Sleep on it. Whatever you do, don’t respond or speak out in a moment of reaction because chances are, you will regret it in the morning.

What are your typical hot buttons and triggers?

When was the last time you reacted to an email by writing back in kind?

What happened, and how long did it take to clean up from the fallout?

We would love to hear your comments.

  1. Laura, what a great post! Haven’t we all said or done something we regret when we’re having an amygala hijack?! And I love your question about triggers. It’s one reason I work with the Enneagram system of personality. It offers clues to our triggers and blind spots with surprising clarity. What sets one person off does not even register for another. Great reminders to stop and check in with the body too. Breathing, stepping away and sleeping on it are ways that I take a break. I also find that talking to a trusted friend or colleague can help me regain perspective.

  2. Laura, I always run things by my husband before I respond. I have learned that because of his training in the corporate world for dealing with escalated customers, his advice is always priceless. If I didn’t have him I would probably be cleaning up a lot more messes. 😉

  3. Tina Pruitt says:

    Interesting post Laura. I learned many years ago from a mentor to not hit the ‘send’ button when our emotions are involved.

    Rather, what I did was type the email response I wanted to send either in a “new message” or in a test document…and totally get it just right. Then I would call a confidante and read it to them…possibly even making further refinements to my message. Then, I would go home for the night…

    The next day I would re-open the email text and with a fresh set of eyes, read it again. And ask, “what would I really accomplish if I sent this email out?”. Most times I did not send that ever-so-perfected sharp message to anyone. If the message needed some further attention, I was much more inclined to dump that text altogether and simply 1) not reply at all, or 2) reply with “call me on this issue at your earliest convenience” or “let’s chat….”

    I (believe) I came to have a reputation of handling things fairly, quickly and decisively without letting my ego be part of the results…..

    Thanks for the reminder….this can be applied to our responses to ANY email situation!

    xo, Tina

  4. Ouch. I felt his pain. I have certainly sent emails I have regretted. It took me a while, but eventually realized that no email needs to be responded to immediately. I always take time before responding, even if I’m not having a negative reaction. I’ve had to clean up too many messes before I learned that lesson. And they never get fully cleaned up.

  5. Peter Fritz says:

    Laura – thanks for posting! We can all relate to an ill-timed email that arose out of a knee-jerk reaction. As with your other commentors, the best strategy is to count to ten, walk away, sleep on it, talk to a colleague or trusted friend before embarassing yourself and others. Thanks for the kick in the head!

  6. geri Esposito says:

    I got one of those emails from a friend about an incident that had occured between us that had infuriated me. When I emailed back saying I wasn’t ready to talk about the situation (because I knew I was still loaded about it). She immediately sent an email that said there will be no other offers. I was thrilled that there would no further communications. I was wrong and got a very nasty letter (not email) from her. It made me realize my holding back because of my anger was the right thing to do.

  7. Oooooh – you hit a hotspot with me! When I was working in the corporate world, this was my BIGGEST hurdle – the politics, the hurt feelings and community tongue-lashings via email! I tried NEVER to give them, but when I got them, BOY was I upset! Steamy is more like it. It used to take everything in my power to prevent myself from responding right away. I still have this issue sometimes with clients who are out of line – usually in that case, though, they’re harmless. It’s the corporate snipers that really get my goat! Loved this post. Great tips!

  8. Jeanette says:

    You are right Laura. Pausing before reacting is so invaluable in the office and in life. I’ve learned to write my ‘get it off my chest’ repsonse and then re-visit the email a few hours later or even the next day to re-write a version that focuses on a more clear and reasonable response.

  9. Scott Powers says:

    I’m a pretty level-headed guy so it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers, but when it does happen I almost never respond back via an email. I will almost always pick up the phone and hash it out. It probably comes from years of being under the thumb of an investment compliance dept that mandated we leave no written trail of being an idiot.
    I think the biggest challenge in responding with an email is that we are forcing the reader to interpret our tone which could create more problems then intended.

  10. Suki says:

    I’ve never send any emails like that to anyone. On the other hand I received those kind of emails from my formal boss. Unfortunately she has never felt regret about sending them. When I first got her email, I was in shocked! and really upset. The best thing to response is just reply it politely and don’t take it personally.

  11. Yvette says:

    Oh, I can relate to this during my slave wage years. Thankfully, I learned from my mentors (while working as a consultant and projects didn’t go as plan) many moons ago to take a breather, go for a walk, a drink…LOL before sending an email while being upset. Thanks for the reminder! Its a good practice for many things in life & biz!

  12. Kathleen says:

    Ouch! Thanks for this, Laura! If it even saves ONE person from this painful issue, it has greatly served!
    The challenge is… this electronic medium. If we were face to face in a room with the other individual, we would not be this direct. We lose touch with so much of our usual ‘good behavior’ when the body of the other person is missing. We are speaking to what we are angry at… not who.

    Its a science in and of itself… cyberspace communication. I have a few years under my belt and it still trips me up from time to time. I could write a book on it from the painFULL lessons I have learned. Thanks for getting this out!
    And… looking forward to your very juicy adventure!! So glad you are back!

  13. Sabra Sasson says:

    Well said. How many times I have counseled clients of mine who are involved in a “touchy” situation and as much as I may advise and give guidance, they still write and send emails that put them in a bad light, that are not effective and don’t serve their intention? Thankfully, many of my clients do heed my advice and “draft” the email they would like to send instead send it to me for my fresh set of eyes to read over and make suggestions to re-frame or edit.

    When it comes to me, I have learned from my clients that sometimes it is best to not reply at all, draft the intended email but not send and just let time pass to consider and reflect.

    Love your comments and questions at the end and it is so true – we can all benefit from listening to our body (our heart rate and tension in the body)

  14. Zaiyah says:

    I really cuoldn’t ask for more from this article.

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