Is Your Team Misusing Email?

Jan 29, 2015
6 Min Read

Ever had the frustrating feeling of reading a long, convoluted email and wondering, “Why didn’t this person just pick up the phone?” Or seeing someone take offense to an email that sounded abrasive, even if the sender didn’t intend it that way?

If you manage a team, chances are good that you’ve seen people making some bad choices when it comes to how they use email. Here are three of the most common, and what to do if you see them on your team.

1. Hashing out complex problems in email rather than talking face-to-face. When explaining complicated or nuanced information, or talking about complicated projects or tasks where you still need to hash out what the outcome should look like, email is rarely the best medium. Talking in-person or jumping on the phone will usually let you get to the outcome you’re looking for faster and with less opportunity for confusion.

What to do if you see it on your team: If you see repeat offenders on your team regularly turning to email when a real-time conversation would be better, point it out! Repeat offenders here tend to be “email people” – people who have a strong preference for written communication and find it more efficient – and you’ll get better results if you start by acknowledging that email is often the right tool … but that in some specific situations, a phone call really does make more sense. Email people are more likely to be receptive to this if they don’t feel like you’re steering them away from their preferred communication method across the board.

2. Sending emails that read as abrasive or unfriendly. It’s basically a truism at this point that tone can’t be read correctly in email, but many people continue to have trouble judging how their email might sound to the recipient. They can inadvertently end up alienating people who they need to have good working relationships with, because their email recipients are reading their written tone as dismissive, abrasive, or even outright rude. Of course, to the senders of these emails, it’s often a great mystery how they were interpreted that way!

What to do if you see it on your team: Again, point it out, and explain why it matters. For instance, “Jim, I know that when you’re emailing, you like to get straight to the point. Unfortunately, it’s coming across to people with a different style as more abrasive than I know you intend. Can you try taking an additional minute or two to make sure you’re not being so concise that it’s coming across as brusque? I’ve noticed that it’s come up a few times when working with the events team, so paying particular attention there would really help.”

3. Treating email as optional. The people in this category are the opposite of the folks who use email for everything, even when they shouldn’t; instead, they may not use email much at all. They don’t reliably respond to emails, even when asked direct questions, and they seem unaware of key info that was communicated in emails to them in the past.

What to do if you see it on your team: Call it out and be clear about what you expect around email usage. For instance, you might explain that you expect all emails to be read within a day of receiving them, and answers should be sent within two business days (even if only to say, “I received this and will need a week to get you the information you’re asking for”). And you might also need to be explicit that email is a key business tool your team relies on, and an employee can no more opt out of its use than they could opt out of attending client meetings.

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