Every school day at 7:45 am (about 15 minutes before students start to arrive) I try to make time to do a lap around my school to say “Good morning!” to teachers and staff, make small talk, take care of some housekeeping items, etc. (Of course, due to unforeseen circumstances, this lap doesn’t always happen. But, I try.)
A few months ago, when I made this lap, one of my teachers asked me a question that had already been answered via schoolwide email. So, I answered the teacher’s question (again) and then pointed out that “it was in the email.” Although her reaction wasn’t negative (on the surface), I immediately regretted referencing the email. In fact, I know there have been other instances in which I made the same error.
Why We Shouldn't Reference the Email
Although I consider myself to be an organized person who is generally on top of things, there have been instances in which I have been on the receiving end of “Didn’t you read the email?” All of these events can be organized into two categories, and not just for me, but for anyone who has been the recipient of such a question.
Category #1: The message/question came from someone whom we consider to be more skilled/competent than we are (or on the same level).
We’re left feeling like we’re not doing enough, and we can even begin to question our own work ethic, routines, etc. Although we may have appropriately handled 99 other emails, this is the one email we got wrong. So, we’ve let down ourselves, the person who has mentioned the email, and possibly others. However, in reality, the “accuser” has also most likely missed an email at one point or another.
Category #2: The message/question came from someone whom we consider to be less skilled/competent than we are.
We know the accuser potentially struggles in other areas, but now he is capitalizing on our mistake to play “Gotcha!” in what feels like an attempt to bring us down to his level. As a result, in the short-term, we may briefly question our capabilities, but then we snap out of it when we realize the game being played. In the long-term, resentment is fueled and the relationship is damaged.
No matter the category, the question should be answered and the email should not be referenced. (So, it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself to be “above” or “below” someone else. Either way, don’t reference the email.)
Exceptions to the Rule
Here are two instances in which the email can be referenced:
- There’s too much information for everything to be explained verbally, so the email needs to be read. We can give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt by assuming the email was read, but perhaps some verbal clarification is needed.
- The same person has a pattern of not reading emails. Yes, we can reference emails as she continues to miss them, but perhaps a one-on-one intervention-like conversation is needed.
In the End
Looking back at the scenario that transpired during my lap around the school, I can honestly claim that mentioning the email was my way of saying, “I’m on top of things. I’ve anticipated your question. And yes, your question has already been answered.” In other words, I was more concerned with affirming my own abilities than I was in helping someone to feel good about the work.
When we’re quick to call attention to others’ mistakes, we create a sense of competition and/or we damage relationships. Also, as Todd Whitaker tells us in What Great Principals Do Differently, “When high achievers have their shortcomings pointed out by someone else, they emotionally deflate.” Whether it’s a high achiever or someone else, students lose out.
But, whenever we intentionally ignore a mistake, we make a deposit in the mistake maker’s emotional bank account because she’s now thinking, “Thanks for helping me without pointing out my mistake. I owe you one.” And, at the same time, we’re creating the conditions for others to do their best work by promoting trust and risk-taking – both of which are necessary for any school to thrive.
How do you respond to missed emails?
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