Who hasn’t sent an email about someone – but to them? Maybe you got a bit annoyed in a meeting, so you ping off a message to a workmate who was there, maybe, “Oh, God, Kate was going on and on as usual.” Then you press send. And THEN you notice you’ve actually sent it to Kate, your boss. Cue PANIC.
It’s such an easy slip. “The person you’re writing about is in the forefront of your mind, so it’s their name you go for in the list,” says psychologist Fiona Murden, who coaches and profiles leaders and is the author of Defining You. Assuming you can’t recall the message, what can you do next? You could style it out in a second email? “Oh, hello, Kate, haha only joking, what I meant was, wasn’t that a long meeting?!!” But that might only make it worse.
According to Murden, there is a way to extract yourself with the minimum pain. Here’s her advice on email crisis management:
1 First, deal with the panic
Do this by talking to someone else. “Trying to deal with something on your own is not always effective.” Of course, it needs to be the right person – “Someone who’s level-headed and won’t get you into more of a spin.” You don’t want the person who says, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, that’s a nightmare.” You want someone who can be objective. “They will help you step back and observe what happened from an impartial viewpoint,” she says.
2 Say it out loud
“The way our head works is to catastrophise,” says Murden – aka to go into an emotional headspin. “In your head, you aren’t aware of where your thoughts are taking you. When you speak it out loud, it changes your perception. In brain terms, it switches you from using the survival-mode area of the brain, which is fuelled by adrenaline and panic, to using the more advanced, rational, calmer areas.”
3 Wait a minute or two
If you’re upset or annoyed or emotional – either from the original situation or the new one – cool down before you do anything. The body takes around 20 minutes to come down from its fight or flight state. “If you’re tempted to respond, ask yourself: is it going to help anyone if I do? Or is it going to make it worse?” You’ve already made a mess – don't stir it up!
Trying to deal with something on your own is not always effective
4 Think the worst
Think: what is the very, very worst thing that can happen here? You might lose your job. Or maybe a colleague won’t speak to you any more. “This is different from catastrophising – it’s getting your head around the situation in an unemotional away.” Ask your person: what do they think the worst thing might be? And what practical thing can you do if the worst thing does happen?
5 Give the disaster a score
How would you score what you’ve done out of 10, if one is a little niggle for the other person, and 10 is a nuclear takedown of their looks, personality or management skill? Then, ask your person to give it a score. “This puts it into perspective. There’s a very high likelihood that your person is going to score it lower than you do.”
6 Arrange to see the recipient
Now comes the crucial part and this is going to take some backbone. Send an email apologising and asking to go and see the recipient, and, if that’s not possible, to speak to them on the phone. “We all know the complexity of human interaction is lost in an email. You’d only be digging a bigger hole.”
7 Fix it
Now comes the apology. When you see them, present the facts, not the emotion. For the first example, you might say: “I’m so sorry. I meant to send the email to Jane, not to you, Kate. I wrote it while I was annoyed after the meeting. I felt you didn’t give me the opportunity to present when it was my project and that was unfair.” Finish off with a solution, so Kate knows it won’t happen again, “Next time, if I feel like that, I’ll be sure not to share with colleagues, but to come to you and talk about it.”
8 Be kind to yourself
“The big picture is you can learn from this,” says Murden. “But if you’re hard on yourself, you’re more likely to make the same mistake again.” Think: shit happens. And by doing what you’ve done, you’ve done the emotionally healthy thing. “You’ve processed it, rather than letting it sit in your head. Owning up to a mistake and fixing it is good for your psyche.”