The proliferation of email and other means of mass communication have certainly added many good things to our workplace and culture; however, one thing it has not done is strengthen relationships in the workplace. I am sure you have been guilty at times – I know I have been. Sometimes it seems so much easier to write a quick email rather than pick up the phone and talk to someone, or perhaps it is late at night and you want to send an email now before you forget (since it is fresh on your mind). Whatever the logic, and trust me – I have used them all – please stop and consider for a moment whether that message should be delivered over email.
Don’t get me wrong, email is a great tool. It just needs to be utilized as effectively as possible. Email is a tool for data transmission, not for conversations or debate.
Problems exist with email communication that have caused me to develop this recommendation: Unless you are simply communicating data or facts, or providing a quick follow-up to a discussion already completed, pick up the phone or take a walk and talk to someone, rather than sending an email. You will find that implementing such a plan not only cuts down on your likely overwhelming volume of email, but in the long run it will also form stronger relationships and make your work easier and more effective.
Here are some reasons why I believe email should not be used for conversations or debate, or anything beyond fact and data transmission, and very general communication.
This is the one we all know and talk about all the time, yet, we often ignore it when we are conducting our daily lives. Email has no tone. The majority of human communication is through non-verbal cues. Most of what we say is not the words we are saying, but rather the interpretation by others of our body language, tone and pitch of our voice, and facial expressions. Email eliminates the receiver’s ability to utilize any of these cues to help determine what we are saying.
I know we have all seen this in action before.
An email chain begins with maybe a bit of what could be interpreted as an attitude. The receiver reads that email, and perhaps is in a bad mood and writes back with even more of an attitude. Then, the original sender receives that response, is put off and feels compelled to respond accordingly. Two or three email exchanges later, two or more people are unhappy because of these negative – and misunderstood – exchanges, work is not getting done, and relationships are, possibly, permanently damaged. All of this could be avoided had the original sender walked down the hall to talk to the person, or picked up the phone.
You see, perhaps the original sender was trying to be funny and did not realize the attitude in the email, or the receiver simply interpreted it badly because of their mood at the time. At this point we will never know because the damage is done. Without the many other tools we use to interpret what people are telling us (i.e., did the original sender smile and have an open posture when s/he said the original statement?), we are left in the dark and make assumptions that need not and should not be made. As I learned in elementary school, to assume makes and ASS out of U and an ASS out of ME (ASSUME).
If you absolutely must do more than transmit data and facts over email, remember the mode of communication you are using and try to make sure you are as friendly and unoffending as possible. When I say friendly, I mean polite. Be careful with jokes, as those efforts can sometimes be received badly, too.
Email does not allow for the traditional back and forth of a conversation. Instead, email seems to facilitate the opposite of productive discussion by encouraging people to dig in and not compromise or try to understand the other’s point of view.
In a typical verbal conversation, there is back and forth; one party discusses his/her point of view, and another discusses theirs. If points of view are divergent, then a conversation begins with back and forth, usually until resolution or a path forward is determined. This is especially true in the workplace. With email, the conversational back and forth is eliminated. When points of view differ, two or more people usually dig into their opposing sides and begin a form of email “warfare” regarding their point of view. This likely would not happen nearly as much had a meeting or telephone call been set up to discuss the topic. Email often removes human nature from the equation, and it is generally human nature to seek resolution of divergent beliefs; even if that resolution is a simple agreement to disagree.
One sure-fire way to avoid this is to never have conversations over email, and to generally utilize email for data and fact transmission. However, should you ever find yourself in a situation where this is happening, stop the war, pick up the phone and call the other person. If it is a group of people, call them all and set up a meeting.
When I say stop the war, I mean immediately. Don’t even schedule the meeting via email, pick up the phone and let them know that you see what seems to be a differing opinion and that you would like to discuss it with them so you can understand all aspects of the issue and so that two (or more) of you can reach resolution and move forward.
Email strongmen (and women)
We have all probably been bitten by this bug once or twice, and likely know some people who live this as a way of life. Email allows people to be bolder, more demanding, and more abrasive than they ever would be in a live situation.
For whatever reason, in email, many people tend to become masters of the universe and willing and able to say whatever is on their minds, as soon as it comes to their minds. In some instances, this could be a good thing, but in most instances, it is not. Many of us have done it – that bold email lashing out at a friend, family member, colleague, or Heaven forbid a client, boss, or spouse, and as soon as you hit ‘send’ you wish that the Outlook recall tool actually worked better than it does. It happens to the best of us. Written word, throughout the ages, has allowed people to be bolder than they would be in a debate or conversation. We need to avoid this, though. One email at the wrong time, to the wrong person, could set or ruin your reputation.
One sure-fire way to avoid this is to never have conversations over email and utilize email for data and fact transmission … are you seeing a trend developing here? If you ever do happen to accidentally send a “strongman email,” it is time to pick up the phone or go see the person, ideally before or right after they have read the email. Explain that you made an error in judgment and talk through the situation with the receiver/s of your strongman email.
Email is forever … and public
One potential problem with having a conversation or debate over email is that it is documented and forever. Sometimes, when arguing a position or belief we can all get – let’s admit it – defensive. Sometimes those defensive comments come off badly and if written in an email, can come back to haunt you even years down the road.
Email is also easily forwarded, even more so than a memo. What you might think is a personal conversation, a confidential conversation, or a lively debate among co-workers can, with one little click, become very public information. Always be careful to remember, email is documented forever and can very easily end up in the hands of your supervisor, co-worker, friends, family, or even in front of a judge or on the front page of the newspaper.