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How One Angry Email Nearly Ruined My Career

It was two sentences. But the fallout from this thoughtless email was big.
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It all started with one angry email.

I was young at the time, working as a documentation manager at a large company. We were pushing out how-to guides for complex in-house software apps, and that meant I had to meet with the IT developers on a regular basis. One of them, whom I'll call "Ted," seemed to be antagonistic about my tiny, four-person team that had just sprung to life.

"What is it you guys do again?" Ted asked me in a meeting one day. I'll never forget the look of disdain on his face, as though we had arrived on his foreign soil without any reason for being there and wanted to borrow his left arm. I mumbled something about human factors, interaction design, and user adoption strategies, but he wasn't interested.

This kind of human roadblock was not exactly a new experience for me. I had led other teams at a small startup in Minneapolis and battled for the value of written communication before, fighting with middle managers who didn't understand what my team members were doing, how our process worked, or why we existed.

With Ted, there was an added element: He just seemed to be annoyed by anyone who thought the application didn't speak for itself. In particular, he was annoyed by me.

After several meetings, he kept insisting that the entire team was a waste of company resources. He said any printed how-to guides or online help would become superfluous to the users, who would figure things out for themselves. I guess he had a point--if the app really was that intuitive, maybe the documentation wasn't as important to them. Unfortunately, we also had usability data that indicated people were pretty confused.

2 Angry Sentences

One day, after a particularly difficult meeting with Ted, I went back to my desk and sent him a short, angry email. It said: "You really have no idea what you are talking about. Can you stop blocking the project?" That's it. I didn't offer any defense for my outburst--maybe an explanation for why I was so frustrated or a note that said I was having a bad day and needed to vent. I also didn't present any of the evidence again that showed how users were frustrated. And I didn't let my boss know what was going on.

As a writer, it's always easier for me to put my thoughts together and explain things in written terms, but I wielded my greatest skill in a way that caused serious damage.

It backfired almost right away. As soon as I hit Send on the email, I knew it was a big mistake. I had insulted him with a terse note that was obviously just a personal attack. What troubled me the most about the email--and why I still remember the incident--is that I liked Ted just fine. He had a pleasant enough demeanor, but he was convinced my team was not necessary. And I didn't swear at him or call him a name. I just made it pretty clear I was angry and was not going to work to resolve anything.

The Fallout

What could I have done to fix the problem? Plenty. For starters, after sending the email I should have gone immediately to his desk and said I was sorry--that I didn't really mean what I had said. A follow-up email might have also helped. Instead, I just sulked at my desk and thought about what to do. Later that day, I passed him in the hall, and he gave me a cold stare. I should have stopped him then and apologized.

After a few days, it became clear to me that Ted had told his boss about the angry email and he wasn't too happy about it. My boss eventually asked me about it, but the damage was done: That particular project ended in a failed bid to do any of the software documentation. But it gets worse. Because my team didn't do that work, and because Ted was even more against our work, the team stalled out for a while. For several weeks, I had visions of either getting fired or having more projects dry up--or both.

The only silver lining to the story--and sadly, it is not that I ever apologized to Ted, because he eventually moved on to another department entirely--is that I had learned my lesson. Small, unresolved conflicts lead to big problems. It can take just one email to cause severe collateral damage. Since then, I reread most of my emails at least once before sending. I also use the Undo Send feature in Gmail, which allows me to cancel a new email before it's actually sent--there's about a one-second delay.

Most important, I see email differently now. It's not a tool for anger or outbursts (of course), or for dictatorial commands to the people you work with. It's also not a tool for deep discussion. Instead, it is a way to communicate more intentionally, to make plans, and to summarize a topic. Literally, ever since that one email experience, I've tried to set my emotions aside before ever typing up a message. I'm not perfect, and I've sent other (more tame) nastygrams to people. But I learned the hard way that just one email can ruin a project--or even a career--if you're not careful with your words.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Apr 4, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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