As a corporate trainer, I’ve spent years teaching workplace productivity and effectiveness tips like “Never send an email when you’re angry.” We all know why. Contrary to what we learned in high school prepping for the SAT, in the workplace rarely is our first thought (tinged with emotion) the right answer. We’ve all done it – succumbed to our initial visceral temptation to fire off an email in the midst of anger with fumes still coming from our ears. And let’s face it, it feels GREAT….for about 5 seconds. Almost immediately though after those 5 seconds of blissful satisfaction, we’re typically overcome with a sense of regret. By then logic, sound reasoning, other perspectives, context, and other rational considerations start to set in and temper our hair trigger emotional initial reaction. In the good old days, our biggest worry was hitting send on that fiery email too quickly. But in our new Twitter, Facebook, Linked In world of sound bite communications, the stakes have grown exponentially. While many of us have felt the dread and anxiety of attempting to recall an ill advised email, the reality is that in this new social media communication era there is no truly permanent recall. Once it’s been posted it’s out there (even if it’s later deleted) and we often have little control over how many people will see or share it. Once sent, that post becomes part of our social DNA – like it or not.
Our new social media obsessed reality begs the question of whether leaders should gravitate to these newer, hipper, quicker communication modes and away from seemingly anachronistic ones like meetings, memos, and emails. As Trump has famously taken to Twitter to talk directly to the people, it’s started a conversation about whether other leaders should follow suit. It’s so tempting to laud the benefits of social media without appropriately weighing the risks. One obvious risk – Twitter (and other social media apps) can test our level of impulse control, and giving into that temptation can have disastrous results. Indeed, social media creates an almost automatic pipeline from that thought bubble floating above our head directly to our fingertips often bypassing the rationally thinking cerebral cortex.
In Trump’s case, there have been well documented instances where he sent seemingly contradictory Tweets – the first Tweet typically fiery and controversial while the second Tweet arguably much more measured and thoughtful. Possibly one of the most noted instances was immediately following the election in November when protests erupted around the country. The Tweet and “reversal” of sorts posted the following morning were well documented by the Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, and other media outlets.
Then after what many would describe as a series of hugely successful women’s post inaugural protest marches around the world, he again sent what appeared to be an impulsive Tweet followed by what seemed to be a contradiction if not “retraction” just 96 minutes later. Again, it was well documented by media outlets including the Washington Post.
Clearly, the swift and significant shift in both tone and core message suggests that the initial Tweets represent the authentic (albeit controversial and arguably damaging), visceral response from the leader himself while the later ones read more like a carefully crafted message possibly authored by handlers or communications staff in an attempt to do damage control.
In my experience, the longer a leader has to think about their response, the more measured and effective it typically is. Indeed, providing an opportunity for the message to marinate and be reflected upon, generally improves the message. In many ways email has become the snail mail of the 21st century and our “thought window” has dramatically decreased which means our level of impulse control has to be greater to avoid those all too embarrassing or damaging communications. Furthermore, social media often forces or encourages much shorter sound bite type communication which is rife for misunderstanding. Email with all its limitations and vulnerabilities at least provides ample time and space for complete explanation.
In my training classes I teach leaders that instead of sending an email when they’re angry, they should either type it in the heat of the moment (without putting any name in the send field) and sleep on it OR send the email to a trusted friend first to read it before sending. This advice isn’t really any different from all the adages we heard growing up about counting to 10 before disciplining your kids or not going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. The simple truth is that we all have impulse control issues and if we’re to save ourselves from our own worst inclinations, we must set up our environment for success (which sometimes means putting the phone down just when you want to pick it up). So, while leaders should acknowledge the significant benefits of social media and develop a comfort level incorporating it into their portfolio of communication options, they should also reflect on when to avoid using social media. Here are my top 5 situations for leaders on when NOT to Tweet/post:
Don’t Tweet/post when….
1. You’ve been drinking or are otherwise altered in some way.
2. You’re angry with someone or about a specific issue.
3. It’s after 10 p.m. or before 7 a.m. (unless there’s been a terrorist attack or other life threatening emergency).
4. The message would be hurtful or embarrassing to anyone (including you!)
5. You’re wondering as you’re typing if the message could be misinterpreted or misunderstood.
The moral of the story from my perspective is that yes, communication has changed, and we all should adapt and embrace the exciting new technological advancements. There are huge benefits to being able to snap a photo and post it with a quick caption or passing thought and send it out to the universe with the tap of a button, but there are tremendous risks as well. Leaders in particular must ensure that communications are not just effective but responsible as well. Just like our parents told us, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.