By Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes it's not just the message you send, but the vehicle you use to send that message that can reap havoc on an organization. E-mail definitely has its place in the modern workplace, but as a tool to lead, motivate and potentially threaten large numbers of employees it can be a disaster waiting to happen. Take the case of Neal Patterson, Chief Executive of the Cerner Corporation, a software company based in the Midwest with about 3,000 employees. Recently, there was a published report about Mr. Patterson's communication faux pas when he attempted to get a message to about 400 of his employees regarding his desire to get them to work harder and longer hours. Look at his e-mail and decide how you would have felt being on the receiving end:

"We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our 'employees'. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8:00 a.m.; likewise at 5:00 p.m. As managers, you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or you do not CARE. You have created expectations on the work effort, which allowed this to happen inside Cerner, creating an unhealthy environment. In either case, you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you...You have two weeks. Tick-tock."

This message from this corporate leader is a classic example of how NOT to use e-mail. Not only were large numbers of company employees confused but they were peeved. Further, word of Patterson's angry e-mail found its way on to the message board at Yahoo. Within three days Cerner's stock price fell approximately 25 percent. There was chaos in the company, which could all be traced back to an effort by a leader to increase "productivity" by getting people to respond favorably to his electronic threat. The real problem, however, is that Neal Patterson is not alone. There are thousands of corporate executives, managers, and administrators who use e-mail to send controversial and potentially misunderstood e-mails to large numbers of employees that wind up only making things worse within the organization. Of course, Mr. Patterson was later quoted as saying that he was taken out of context and that Cerner employees misunderstood that he was exaggerating just to make a point. But the fact is he is the culprit; the sender of any communication must be held responsible for the interpretation of it. The sender must work harder to think through how a message (be it sent face to face, over the telephone or via e-mail) will be received.

To test out the Patterson e-mail, I asked my friend Judy, a top-level manager at a NJ based high-tech company, how she would have reacted to such an e-mail from her boss. Judy said, "It definitely would have de-motivated me because I don't like to be threatened. The CEO should have met face-to-face with his top managers at the Kansas City location and discussed his concerns about productivity. Together, they should have come up with a game plan as to how to communicate those concerns and generate further discussion among the employees in question." Finally, Judy added, "Since when are the number of cars in a company parking lot a clear-cut measure of employee productivity? On the Seinfeld TV show, George Costanza made an entire career of looking busy at his desk while doing absolutely nothing." Judy's got a point there.

As for Neal Patterson, he is quoted as saying his e-mail was intended to "start a fire" but instead he "lit a match, and started a firestorm." He adds that he wished he had never hit the 'send' button on this most destructive e-mail. Final piece of advice, it's not a bad idea to have a trusted colleague or friend read such a sensitive e-mail and get some honest feedback before you decide what to do with it. Like a lot of technology, e-mail can be great, but only when used correctly. Write to me with your mail horror stories.