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To forward or not to forward?

So I woke up this morning and as is often my habit I went down to my office for a quick look at my email, just to see if there was anything that needed my immediate attention. Lo and behold one of the members of my team had reached out to somebody, somebody that I had been in the middle of an ongoing discussion with directly, and copied me on it. So this would seem fairly benign if weren’t for how this second conversation came about. As I said before I had been having an ongoing conversation with this outside party and something of interest had come up in our conversation. So I forwarded this conversation to a person on our team, ostensibly to keep them in the loop.

Looking back on things, it probably wasn’t the best idea. I could have written up a brief status with instructions on how I wanted the information handled. I could have made a phone call to make this person aware of the situation. Basically I could have done a lot of different things but I didn’t. I just forwarded them the e-mail with a little note at the top that just said FYI. Now maybe its not the end of the world but this really frustrated me for a few reasons.

By virtue of this person taking that information and reaching out directly on that specific subject it: 1) put me in a position of having to respond and acknowledge this conversation really quickly which in this case, was actually something that I hadn’t wanted to do. I wanted to keep this person informed because it was an important conversation that was going on with an outside stakeholder. My intention had really been for us to have a discussion about it so that I could shape an appropriate response. So when this person jumped directly to the responding part they didn’t have the full context of how to respond. Not everything was in the email. This is an email that was the culmination of a lot of phone calls and a bunch of other things. So their interpretation and subsequent response lacked nuance because they weren’t completely informed.

When you think about it, the responsibility for all of that circles right back around to me. I didn’t put, “FYI lets discuss so that I can respond,” I just put “FYI” at the top. So I certainly cant be too upset with my team member for essentially having taken the initiative to contact this person because I was really unclear with how I wanted the information handled. So in looking back and figuring out how I’ll move forward, it certainly brings to the forefront the idea that sharing these types of communication outside the immediate chains can be tricky but useful. I think sometimes there’s real value when all the sudden you’re going back and forth in an email chain and you recognize that you need another set of eyes to make use of it. I think it’s completely appropriate to share that out to somebody as long as, especially if its business correspondence as it was in this case, that’s a reasonable expectation of that exchange. I believe that the e-mail that I sent was. It was focused on a business area so I don’t have a problem with having actually shared the information.

I think that what would have made this work would have been if I had just taken the time to write a simple sentence at the top of that correspondence that said, “Let’s coordinate to develop a response,” rather than simply put “FYI” on there. I receive a lot of these types of communications from other people as well seeing as it’s a simple kind of a way to get people up to speed on a conversation that they haven’t been a part of. Since this is used so often within my company and I’m sure others, there may need to be some basic ground rules and guidelines on how to handle that type of situation.

  1. I think the number one thing that needs to be included when you forward an email chain to somebody else is a quick explanation of what’s the appropriate way to handle this information. Is it OK for this person to directly contact that person? Is it ok for them to forward it on as they see fit? What are the rules around sharing the conversation? I think that is the first and foremost important thing to include.
  2. What is the anticipated next step in this?
  3. This rule is lower priority than the first two but I thought I should include them. What is the desired outcome? Especially if you’ve had a lot of correspondence, what are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve and what are the relevant points in the document that you’re trying to point them to? These are very, very useful in terms of helping somebody understand what the move forward is.

I’m curious what other people’s feelings are. Do you have other tips in this regard? Do you believe that you should never share conversations and that it should always be summaries rather than forwarding something? I’m really curious what other people have to say.

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Dick Davies

Really thoughtful post.

I have a considerable history of one hit wonders, receptionists who make a “sale” by misrouting a call I have taken considerable effort to create. Like you, I don’t want to stifle initiative or squelch forward progress.

My solution has evolved to make everyone aware of our business processes. We often find they are not complete, which creates the problem.

Case in point – Yesterday I got a bill from a doctor’s office for a no show appointment. I called the billing department and explained they had brought me in earlier based on severity. They were nice about it, but it was obvious no one had freed up the later appointment.

Hanlon’s Razor – Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.