Appropriate Use of Email

by Jo Anne Nelson on October 6, 2011

Effective communication and coordination are crucial to building high performance teams and organizations. It’s no secret that one of the most commonly used communication and coordination tools in use today creates challenges in a number of domains—email.

No doubt about it, email is a great invention. Using email, individuals and teams can easily communicate and coordinate across geography and time zones. Yet, the way email is often used disrupts communication and coordination, compromising efficiency, effectiveness and mood.

For instance, time is wasted reading emails by people who are copied but not directly involved or impacted. And relationships become strained and focus dispersed when tone is misinterpreted.

There are four primary drivers of the negative impact of email. People:

  • copy individuals not directly involved or affected by the content of the email,
  • assume that intention and mood are obvious and fail to anticipate the possibility of misinterpretation on the part of recipients,
  • think it is faster to send an email than to pick up the phone, so they write quickly and send, and/or
  • are uncomfortable having direct conversations and use email as a means of opening challenging conversations while avoiding the discomfort of one-to-one interaction.

So how can you avoid these negatives? Have clear standards for how you use email and the discipline to act consistent with your standards.

Rule One: Copy only people directly affected by the content of your emails.
Yes, it might be nice to keep others informed. Sure, paranoid individuals, especially in fear-based cultures and circumstances, tend to look for CYA opportunities. Conflict avoidance often leads to passive aggressive email behavior that plays out as letting lots of people know how unhappy you are with one of your colleagues. But, at the end of the day, ask your self this—am I committed to moving forward in the best interest of my organization or team? Or, would I rather act out in ways that will likely divert focus from what really matters?

Rule Two: Bring a high standard of care to writing and editing before hitting send.
The tone and intention of roughly 90% of all emails are misinterpreted. Why? Suboptimal writing and editing. The reader has nothing other than the written word to shape their interpretation or intention and mood. They are missing our tone of voice and body language. So, take the time to carefully consider not only the content you want to convey, but also to step back and reflect on what you have written. Then, edit, paying careful attention to setting context and tone, before hitting send.

Rule Three: Email is best used to make announcements or confirm results and understandings.
Congratulations, Mark, for winning a new contract! We agreed to launch our marketing plan on October 10 and Justine will be leading that project.

Email is never a good venue for opening and conducting conversations—especially difficult conversations. When the need for an important conversation arises, either meet in person (preferable) or schedule a live chat through video conferencing, if possible and feasible. As a last choice, get on the phone. You will be amazed how much time you save.

Many of the people and teams we work with balk at using email less frequently or thoughtfully—we’re just too busy! But, when they apply these principles and practices they realize a huge return on investment—better coordination, stronger relationships, more time available and dedicated to focusing on what matters as opposed to managing avoidable breakdowns and drama.

So, what are you waiting for? Try it out, and let us know how it works for you!

Jo Anne Nelson

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