Suppose two people, Agatha and Billy, work in the same organization, and team up for the first time. Agatha sends Billy an e-mail, making a request that Billy submit to her a report she needs for her upcoming trip in 10 days. Ten days later, Agatha and Billy have an argument because Agatha did not receive the report. Billy says he never saw the e-mail because he was busy working on another high-priority project; he never agreed to do the work. Who is at fault?
Let’s examine this more closely. From Agatha’s point of view, Billy is at fault since he didn’t complete the report. For her, failing to reply and say no to the report means Billy has quietly acquiesced to doing the work. She also believes that if there was an objection, she would have heard from Billy about it in a reasonable time frame, say, within 24-48 hours.
Billy has different expectations. He likes to keep his promises, so unless he gives his word that he will complete a project, he will not do the work. He expects that, should anything urgent pop up, someone trying to reach him would e-mail him a few times to make sure he notices the message. In his view, Agatha is at fault for not trying to reach him more than once.
Unfortunately, this situation is more common than we imagine. How many of us have found ourselves in Agatha’s or Billy’s shoes? Is Agatha at fault? Billy? Both? Neither? The truth is… it doesn’t matter at this point, as the organization is already at risk of failing in some way.
In reality, this conflict can be avoided entirely if both Agatha and Billy (and the entire organization) agreed to a set of rules regarding communication and e-mail etiquette–a code of honor–when they first joined the organization. A possible code of honor, mentioned at the most recent Chapters workshop and obtained from the work of Werner Erhard et al., works well with volunteer teams working via e-mail, so we will review it here and apply it to Agatha and Billy’s situation.
The Code has two simple rules:
- When you receive a request, you must, in a timely fashion, accept, decline, counter-offer, or promise to reply at a later time (and keep that promise).
- When making a request of someone, you must ensure you elicit and obtain one of the four replies from rule 1.
Let us apply this code of honor to Agatha and Billy’s case. Billy did not follow the first rule above… he never replied at all! Unfortunately, when a reply is not given, it is just as detrimental to the relationship as agreeing to the request and not following through. From Agatha’s point of view, that is exactly what happened. This breakdown in communication leads to a breakdown in trust between the partners and the team begins to falter.
However, Agatha is not without blame. She failed to follow the second rule above. She assumed Billy’s silence meant the work would be done, and she failed to be responsible to ensure her message had gotten through. This shows the flip-side of making a request–a request that is not fully acknowledged is equivalent to not making the request at all.
Note that only after we laid down the rules were we able to determine where the process broke down and who is at fault. This is how a Code of Honor allows your team members to hold each other accountable. Without it, everyone plays by their own rules and the team’s ability to work cohesively withers away.
Now, many readers might think this is trivial. Some of you might even practice this already, and if you do, I applaud you. But the truth is this simple code will prevent misunderstandings which can lead to lack of trust and team breakdowns. Having it explicitly stated and agreed to by all members of a team will ensure your operations move forward efficiently. It also allows you to hold team members accountable when they don’t honor the code, since they agreed to it from the beginning.