Email is an inescapable part of work. It can be an excellent tool for certain types of communications. However, there are many minefields you can step on when using email, so it’s important to be careful and understand some basic rules for using this tool appropriately. You want to communicate your messages clearly without confusing anyone or offending someone in the audience.
Clarity is critical when it comes to email. Before resorting to written communication, check to see if there is another way to connect with your audience. Is it possible to have a brief meeting face-to-face or virtually? Why is this important? When you can see the other people, you’ll pick up cues from their body language that tell you a lot about how they’re feeling. You lose that information when you’re interacting digitally. It’s hard to tell if others are frustrated, distracted, upset, happy or engaged.
There are probably company standards when it comes to sending email. These might not be written down. If you’re new to a company, err on the side of formality until you have a good understanding of how people write email. Do they use a formal or casual tone? Do employees occasionally make light-hearted jokes or is this frowned on? Are emails bright and full of graphics, or are they plain and in a more professional format? Take time to learn the tone of emails in your company and then apply them to your writing. There is a risk of offending others if you go against the accepted standard.
What is a counterproductive email? It’s an email that does more harm than good. This can happen in any number of ways and it’s often unintentional. Here are just a few scenarios in which people can start trouble without meaning to:
- One evening, Stuart notices that Elena has not finished her report on time. He’s irritated because he’s pretty sure Elena understood the deadline. He fires off an email telling her that he’s frustrated and that she needs to get her act together.
- Shalene needs to assign tasks to her entire team. She only recently joined the company. Shalene sends out a quick bullet pointed list of each person’s assignment and the due date.
- Tracy sends a slightly off-color joke to his co-worker, Louis. By the end of the day, the joke has been forwarded to everyone in the office.
These are only a few examples of how emails can cause problems. Stuart should wait until the morning and speak with Elena in person. The email is likely to upset her a great deal. A face-to-face conversation would be very revealing. There may be a very good reason Elena is behind on the report. If there isn’t, Stuart can talk to Elena about her behavior and how to improve in the future.
Shalene is probably confusing every member of her entire team. They don’t know her well enough to guess what she might mean in the email. She needs to build one-on-one relationships with her team members. This is more time-consuming but will ultimately be more rewarding in the long term. People will begin to understand her and will feel comfortable asking questions.
Tracy found out the hard way that few things stay private in an office. He intended the joke to merely go to one friend, but it went to a large group of people. There’s a good chance he’ll be reprimanded for sending the email. The best choice would have been to either not tell the joke at all or tell it to his friend outside of work.
It’s tempting to send an email when you’re dealing with someone you have trouble getting along with anyway. When one-on-one interactions are stressful, people tend to avoid them. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates difficult relationships. There’s nothing like face-to-face communications to clear up misunderstandings. If you avoid one-on-one discussions with people, any awkwardness or frustrations will build up over time. It will be more and more difficult to repair the relationship if you don’t meet with the person face-to-face and take the time to clear the air. You might be surprised at how well things go during an in-person conversation.