I've been making a mistake in how I've composed emails, and the solution to the problem is ground-breaking to say the least.
Brain science has started intersecting with our everyday lives, helping us understand motivations not just as a wild poke in the dark but in terms of what is actually happening in our brains and why we act the way we do. It's more than just a theory in a lab. There are neural pathways that trigger certain thought patterns. The more we understand what is happening in the brain, the more we can make adjustments that have real productivity gains.
In her brilliant book about the power of behavioral science and its ability to transform our work day, Caroline Webb includes an appendix on how to handle email overload. The entire book is filled with insights that can help you complete more work in a healthier way, but there's one comment that really caught my attention. In the appendix, she mentions how it is better to start off an email explaining your solution to a problem rather than stating the problem and then explaining the solution.
Sadly, I have done the reverse my entire working life. I'm pretty sure I was taught in grade school to state the problem first and then explain the solution. This "problem then solution" technique is also based on science, but it has carried over to the work world and eventually to email. What brain science has learned, though, is that the reward center of the brain kicks in when we see a solution first. We go into a mode of helping others, of being part of the solution, of adding to the answer.
For years, I was essentially creating a negative reaction with people. "Oh, let's not worry about the solution yet, let's dive into the problem." This tips (and ticks) people off. The brain goes into a reactionary, defensive mode. We become self-protective. We defend ourselves and become resilient to change. We erect a mental roadblock. I've wondered for years why, when I send an email and point out a problem, that I tend to get negative reactions at first. People think: "Oh, that's not possible--I'm sure you must be wrong about that. Get more information about it and get back to me."
I'll give you a personal example. I've been working on a garden since April, and part of my process involves testing some soil sensors that connect to an app on my phone. One of the sensors doesn't work. So, I emailed the company that makes the sensor and stated the problem. I listed out the reasons why it isn't working and why it's a not functional. Guess what? They didn't react too positively to my email.
Be honest--do you do the same thing? We like to punish people a little by email. "You screwed up, you created this problem, you are to blame."
I should have cut right to the solution instead. I could have started my message this way: "I have an idea on how to make the soil sensors work--maybe we can try for the latest firmware you mention. Or maybe the one I have is defective, can you send me another? My thought is to try a new sensor in a different part of the garden."
Boom, the recipient would have reacted by adding to the solution. "Sure, let's try another sensor or maybe your soil is just too dry or sandy."
How do we react differently between those two approaches? When you state the problem, people feel like they should go on the attack. They think you are accusing them of something. Webb says it puts our brains into a defensive mode. When we state the solution, it puts our brains into solution mode. People think we are offering an olive branch, and they want to participate. They want to help. As Webb explains in the rest of the book, this really makes everyone more productive and happy.
Now, this is all a passing comment in the appendix of a book, but it's amazingly profound. For those who process email all day, it's even life-changing. I'm going to switch every single email I send to use this technique instead. I might get to the problem eventually, but I plan to start with my idea first. "Hey, let's try this and here's why ..." is a much better tactic. If you follow a similar approach, let me know if you suddenly start getting much more positive responses.