Email has made our lives easier and more efficient, but it’s also the source of many misunderstandingsand conflicts at work. Body language and tone of voice are lost through digital communication.
In today’s hurried and harried world, even the best communicators fall short when they reach out through electronic mediums.
A couple of years ago, I worked with the vice president of R&D at a fortune 50 company. We’ll call him Dave. He was a busy guy running a large organization, and when he sent an email, the niceties were all but absent. He’d start with a “hi,” leap right into the meat of the message, and end with a simple “Dave.”
While some people grew used to his style, if they were feeling at all insecure, if he was responding to a delicate issue, or if they were looking for a positive sign from him, his emails threw them off balance. Normally they just shrugged, and attributed it to “that’s Dave.”
But one time, the director of product marketing who we’ll call Aaron, was in a stressful situation and vibrating anxiety. Aaron was in the middle of a new product launch and Dave expected that he would ensure its success. It was going well, but there had been a few bumps in the road and Aaron was starting to worry a bit about how Dave was perceiving him.
During an email exchange, Dave did what he normally does; provide a response to the inquiry. But this time Aaron read into the message. His worry increased, he began asking others if Dave had said anything negative about him or the product launch. His confidence began to erode. Aaron needed to be able to marshal all of his resources to pull off this project, but now he was using his energy to focus on how he was being perceived by Dave.
In an effort to ‘get it done,’ Dave’s efficient but curt emails were eroding Aaron’s successful product launch. Aaron’s confidence was slipping and his time and attention were diverted.
This is one small example of how email communication can impede, rather than support, a productive work environment. There are times for email, times to pick up the phone and times for an in-person conversation. The trick is to know when to deploy which method.
Here are some simple dos and don’ts that will help you improve your email effectiveness:
Do have an in-person conversation, when offering negative feedback. When you have to give corrective feedback, do it in person. Email and text messages are among the least effective and most destructive ways to deliver difficult feedback.
Don’t explain yourself in great detail, in an email. When you think you’re being criticized, don’t start explaining, justifying or defending. This is a conversation, not an email exchange. Thank the person for the feedback and set up a time to meet and discuss so you can better understand. Then, listen.
Do take the time to make your emails personal. Include a greeting—something simple like, “hope you enjoyed your weekend.” End it with, “talk soon!” Don’t leave out the niceties and social graces. People who are direct communicators, or are focused on efficiency, don’t translate well to email. This can be corrected by taking just a few moments to make it personal so your email isn’t scrutinized by the recipient, who may be confused about your mood and sentiment. Remember how people parsed whatever Alan Greenspan said? This happens with you too!
Emojis can help relay tone so the recipient knows you’re kidding, saying it with a smile on your face, etc. You have to gauge whether this person will see an emoji as enhancing your communication or will think an emoji is unprofessional.
Do meet in person when you need to resolve an interpersonal conflict. Sending off an email or retort when you’re upset is a bad idea. In the heat of the moment, you are likely to say something you’ll regret, and will likely escalate the situation. You can’t take it back, even if you apologize. People remember.
Additionally, your words are now in print and can be put in a file, forwarded, shown to other people. If there is an issue to resolve, it’s best done in conversation. A retort may feel good in the moment, but the backlash will hurt.
Don’t cc: others unnecessarily. When you’re just trying to cover your butt and cc: everyone, it’s a waste of time and annoying to people who are cc:d. They can see right through it, so don’t do it. If you’re cc:ing people to get back at them or shame them, don’t do it. If you understand what I’m writing here … you know who you are.
Do use email to share information. The best use of email is to communicate information, logistics, updates, quick hellos and check ins to let people know you’re thinking about them. If you’re hiding behind your email or text message because you don’t want to face the person directly, this is a sign not to send an email or text. Pick up the phone, or better yet, meet. It’s often much easier and goes much better than your worst fears.
Don’t escalate a bad email. If you are the recipient of the well-intended but poorly executed email, realize your responsibility as the receiver not to escalate when an email comes across in a bad way. Don’t react or retort or read into it. Pick up the phone or meet, ask questions and listen. The likelihood that you’ve misread the meaning and intent of the message is quite high. Be willing to be surprised!
Key takeaway: Remember, email is like a postcard. It can be read, forwarded, printed ... you’re leaving a paper trail. ’Nuf said.