Email is a monster
Stop in, you could win.
Tomorrow, August 11, 2010 I’m reviewing the book “Awesomely Simple.” In addition, the author John Spence is giving away three signed copies.
I recently sent an email to the leaders on my team that I shouldn’t have sent. The message was necessary but the channel (email) was inappropriate.
Do you use email for all your communication? I do but shouldn’t. Most know the severe limitations of email as a communication channel. However, because we constantly use it, it’s easy to slip into using it for everything.
The reason email isn’t for everything
Research indicating that 93% of communication is nonverbal (tone, facial expressions, gestures, etc) and only 7% the actual words is contested. Regardless of the exact percentages, it’s obvious that communication is much more than words. For example, location is a factor. Is the communication in my office or yours? Are you behind the desk or are we sitting together at a table? Are we chatting over lunch?
Email shouldn’t be used for messages that potentially ignite strong emotions. Not long ago I received an email filled with wrong assumptions asking accusative questions. Thankfully, this time, I responded dispassionately and saved everyone the long damage control process.
Additionally, email shouldn’t be used when emotion is important to the message. You may have a strong message to give but you want to give it with compassion. Or, you may have a strong message to deliver and you want to put the fear of God in someone. In either case, make it face-to-face.
Email recipients impose their context on your email. You may send a strong message with compassion but they may read a strong message with the fear of God. When that happens, let the damage control begin.
I know better than send an email that requires emotional context for accurate communication. But autopilot won the day.
What guidelines do you use for email vs. face-to-face communication?
Care to share an email story where the message was lost in damage control?
As far guidelines, one of the most frequent complaints at my organization is the number of people who are cc’d on emails not because they need the information, but because the author wants to “cover him or herself” and be able to say that the recipient of the CC was “in the loop” of the issue. It doesn’t always achieve the goal of the sender (keeping the cc’d individual in the loop) b/c that person is likely to handle it with a quick glance (oh, I was just cc’d on that so no action on my part is necessary) AND it clogs up the incoming email boxes for all of us who are unnecessarily copied on CC’s.
As for messages lost in damage control, this is slightly different than that, but a meeting was being held in our conference room at which our vendor was involved. One of my coworkers said something perceived as “picky” (the vendor manages our computer system and we were addressing an issue that had not been adequately analyzed which was in danger of going down the wrong road), and the vendor’s client representative accidentally copied my coworker on the comment, “she makes me nauseous”! In the age of blackberries the comment was transmitted to my coworker immediately. AWKWARD. I think the vendor rep tried to brush it off as “I meant something about the situation nauseated me.” Point being that many of us fall easily into the tempting trap of venting via email, thinking it’s a quick and humorous way to process an incident. But as this one shows, one wrong keystroke and the whole thing can backfire, gaining new “legs” as an issue and creating a definite need for damage control.
Good one on the CC mania! It may be an indication of a work environment that could use a little “speed of trust.”
Thanks for a great story. I bet we all have stories about someone who wrote something in a email that got to the wrong person(s). OUCH. Great reminder.
I’ll add that humor can be taken in a bad way as well. I know a situation where the send was trying to be humorous but the recipient used it against them to make them look bad. Sad!
Best to you,
Paula is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak: Read her bio at:
Thanks for your candid insights and admission of your e-mail miscue. Gosh, glad to know that I am not the only one who has send an “ill advised” e-mail simply because it was easier than a “face to face” meeting or maybe even picking up the phone? Perhaps technology and its use, (while I love it, embrace it and use it constantly) can sometimes make our work harder because we have to go back and explain, “No, that’s not what I meant to say…what I meant to say was…….”
I have learned, albeit the hard way, that before I click “send” to ask myself these questions: How is this e-mail going to come across to the recipient? Do I need to call them or have a meeting with them instead to convey what I really want to say? Just that pregnant pause, might be the difference between “message received” in its proper context OR more damage control.
Thanks for your comment, empathy, and suggestion…
PAUSE BEFORE YOU CLICK SEND… Oh yeah.
All the best to you,
How many of us have (more than once) hit ‘send’ only to regret it right afterwards? So…
Some A, B, C, D, Es of email…
Assume your email will be seen in public and…Always reread and spell check your email. If your email were posted in the newspaper, would you be okay with it? If not, why are you sending it? If your email is too long to reread in a couple of minutes, then you did not follow ‘B’.
Be brief, write about one subject only. If you can’t capsulate it in LF’s 300 words or less, make an attachment. (still working on that one) Less is more. Emails plant seeds.
Casual, emails are casual not formal. Old school, USPS letters are formal. Each has its own space and place.
Discoverable—emails never die, they can always be retrieved. (see also ‘A’)
Emotions rarely, if ever, convey well via email. Emails sent while emotional also rarely go over well. Emoticons do not really convey emotion. Then it is time for ‘F’…face to face.
Total sidecar: The 7-38-55% rule is often generalized and apparently has attained urban myth ‘legs’ that are a bit wobbly. (I always thought the 93% of communication that is not words was a ploy by Kodak to sell more film.)
See the attached links for more detailed info about the 7-38-55% rule:
And I agree with Doc here – emails are forever. It’s a good rule of thumb to use internet communication with the knowledge that it may outlive you. And any unintended consequences can affect not just you, but your family, co-workers, etc..
Great comment. You’ve added great value.
I love Be brief. Write about one subject. I’ve received and be guilty of writing emails that need chapter divisions and a topical table of contents. give it up!
Loved your links regarding 7-38-55% rule. I’ll add this, it seems that listeners believe body language over words. IF I shake my head no while making an affirmative statement listeners believe the no. A wink can negate what is being said…of course that is cultural also.
Thanks for giving back to the community.
Doc is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at:
This reminded me of a teacher I had back in “letter writing days”. He said to never put I love you in a letter because of the many different ways it could be read depending on where the recipient put the emphasis.
Great to see you again and thanks for your story from “letter writing days.” Those were the days.
E-mails are quite useful and the fastest mode of communication. One needs to know how best to use it. So long as you are brief and respectful in your language & the tone, these are well received and accepted by the receiving party.
I do agree that we need not write an e-mail when you are emotionally disturbed. But so long as you are honest and providing the facts, nothing that boomerangs.
It’s a matter of choice whether you would personally meet to convey or write a short mail. May be confidential and legal matters can be handled by way of detailed letters by way of courier or registered post.
Unwarranted mails with not much objectivity can be avoided. Otherwise, e-mails are the invention of 20th century since these cuts down the distance between 2 parties and act as the fastest mode for communication exchange.
I do not have a single incidence to regret. You need to rationally think and write only the relevant things in brief. I consider this as the best tool to go professional. It helps to demonstrate the promptness with which you attend to the things as conveyed and express your commitment level by way of an acknowledgment and a quick desired action in response. E-mails have replaced the conventional way of writing postcards or aerogram and with no cost.
Dear Dr. Asher,
Nicely said. You are driving home the important point of brevity. I think you are nailing it by saying many problems can be avoided with brevity and of course staying on topic.
Also, thanks for bringing legal issues to the table. Thats another important consideration when firing off 100’s of emails.
I’m not sure how others feel but I agree that speedy reply’s are important and give the impression you are on top to things.
Best to you,
Dr. Asher is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at:
Dan, do I know this intimately! You have written a great, to-the-point article that I plan to share with several others!
Email is a great tool to assist communication, but in my estimation should never be considered a replacement for communication. I know, that sounds a little illogical, but I think you know what I mean. Especially when a relationship is important, whether that be a boss/employee relationship, owner/customer relationship, teacher/parent relationship, or something friendly or romantic. Newsletters, bullet points, lists, recaps, records and even reports are all great uses of email. But those are things that supplement the actual communication, decision and teamwork process. Sending a report does not replace the human connection.
In sales, we know that if it takes more than 2 emails, it’s time to pick up the phone or drop by in person. And in volunteer work, where everyone’s views on how to socially interpret email is coming from a different background (perhaps corporate style, perhaps grandma just learned to use a computer style and wide variation in between), email can be very 1-dimensional. Even handwriting shows more connection and emotion. It just is not, and cannot be expected to be, the whole picture and is not the best conduit for the human soul’s interactive state. Not to mention, long emails can often be communicated more efficiently and effectively if done verbally and then followed up on via email. No one wants to read long emails and most people don’t.
About once every 3 months I find myself helping smooth ruffled feathers because everyone’s using email to coordinate/plan and no one has picked up the phone! We even have a couple volunteers who refuse to communicate any other way. It’s very limiting and even sometimes confusing. And admittedly, my secret sauce is face-to-face.
Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences.
Here’s one thing that popped off the page. You brought relationship to the conversation. Our success or failure is always about relationships and communication either builders or undermines relationships. Very powerful idea that all us email maniacs need to keep in mind. Information is one thing but relationship is a whole other ball of wax. You insight has huge implications for virtual teams.
I am going to adopt the 2 email rule, thanks Julia!
😉 Glad to be of help Doc! My husband uses that rule all the time at work. And thanks again Dan!
Email has become almost necessity in life to communicate faster, cheaper and easier. Email has increased the reach, relation and connectivity of the people. It facilitates many personal and professional communication. Email has both the impact ie positive as well as negative. There are many unwanted, unnecessary and blackmailing information trying to trap the person. The context and content in the email affect and impact emotion but magnitude in small. We may express our feelings and thoughts in appealing manner but we cant gurantee the impact, whereas face to face communication creates more impact if communicated properly and in the same way as sender feels and thinks. So, alignment of your feelings, thoughts with your expression create more impact than written communication. The basic differece in face to face communication and email communication is absense of human touch and expression. And it it probably the right means of communication because you dont see the person in electronic mode. Identity is hidden in email. At the same time message can purturb, disturb or please you while you are actually not aware about the intention of the sender. In the face to face communication, it is perhaps difficult to hide the emotion and expression and you also know the identity of the person. So, identity plays a major role in expressing your emotions and feelings. Identity reveals feelings, emotions and expression and that make face to face communication more impactful.
While reading your comment I thought about how history is a factor. If I have a long history with a person I might be able to get away with many things I can’t get away with when I don’t know the person. Although even a long history is no excuse for an inappropriate email. I’ve upset close friends with emails that should have be face-to-face discussions. I forgot that many messages need the emotion in order to be understood.
Best to you,
Ajay is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at:
As the Medical Director of a large MS Clinic and overseeing all of Medical and Clinically related information we have pretty strict rules about the use of email. First any communications about personal issues, whether emotional content is present or not are best conducted face to face. We use email to convey non personal information, non-emotional information, and data information. I personally spend more times in meetings than I do checking email. I have 150 physicians and 55 Mid Level providers and we do communicate via email but again content is very controlled. Needless to say patient issues are never discussed via email. I just looked at my inbox and most of the emails are different blogs I follow, people reminding me of dates for conferences, meetings etc. I have found as you well pointed out Dan that since Non-Verbal communication is so abundant, (93%) my contributions and assessments take a totally different tone when face to face with folks. I have just read a fascinating book titled “Louder than Words” by Joe Navarro who was a former FBI counterintelligence and terrorist interrogator. It is not a book but rather a “vook” since it has text and video. I never knew that all of these different movements actually have names to them and this is a whole science all of its own. It is a “vook” that I will read many times to become more proficient at reading the unspoken and interpreting the unsaid. Thanks for this Blog, Dan; I learned something new everytime I show up here.
Thanks for stopping in and sharing your insights and perspective. The medical field certainly adds another angle to how email should and should not be used be used.
Thanks for mentioning the vook. I’ve added this amazon link for LF readers who may enjoy checking out your recommendation.
Thank you for your encouraging words,
Using email this way can be a form of cowardice. If it’s something difficult or confronting that needs to be said, the arm’s-lenght nature of email is enticing. As leaders, however, I think we need to be emotionally intelligeant and brave (didn’t your alphabet say that?). If we feel feedback is required, we need to ensure that itis properly communicated to be effective and that means not only sent well but also received well.
My favorite story about the monster that email has become was from my CEO at Opus. http://bit.ly/bbSAjO
He worried and warned about the awesomely destructive power of email to destroy a company’s can-do, ownership culture.
I fear he was right, as are you about the evils of email.
However, I have a question… if a misunderstood email creates strong emotions, why would we want to avoid it? After all, emotion is what drives action. Strong emotion = strong action. Couldn’t we use that in our enterprises?
May I offer that instead of the fault being in the tool, perhaps it’s our fault as leaders in not understanding how to use such a power tool to create and inspire action.
Don’t we all appreciate inspiring speeches? The legacy of the great orators, from Lincoln to Regan all started with the written word.
I would ask, how would our companies be different if we were able to use email to instantly inspire greatness instead of ignite misunderstanding?