Do you remember life before email?  Perhaps you don’t, but I do.  In those days, business moved at a much slower pace, as we waited for snail mail to deliver important correspondence.  Often, we had a verbal conversation via telephone if it was more efficient than waiting for regular mail.  Amazingly enough, sometimes we even had one-on-one conversations, IN PERSON, when we didn’t have the luxury of instantaneous communication via email.

So, times have changed.  Having an immediate method of communication has drastically altered our communication channels and habits.  It seems that without exception, email as a method of communication is both a blessing and a curse for most organizations.

There are many advantages to using email to communicate.  It’s efficient, timely, and great for recording the history of a conversation.  It’s easy to include others in a conversation without having to tie everyone’s time up at once.  It is an effective way to confirm a verbal conversation.  It’s less interruptive than a phone call or unscheduled visit.

On the other end of the spectrum, email can be quite destructive.  For example, the tone of an email can imply an inaccurate message.  Too many emails in your inbox can create enormous amounts of stress as the work involved to answer them piles up.  We can begin to view email as another job duty rather than a way of communicating.  Perhaps most destructive, is that people can avoid having difficult conversations by using email instead of having a fearless conversation with someone in person.

There is no question that using email to communicate will remain a widely accepted practice in business.  A powerful way to maximize the benefits and minimize what is essentially the cost of email dysfunction, is to provide a set of guidelines for people to use.  Every company is different, so the guidelines can be customized to fit specific cultures and leadership expectations.  Nonetheless, creating an agreement about email, and the associated parameters within which a company successfully operates, will eliminate many of the frustrations that are rampant in the workplace.

Here are some suggested guidelines:

  1. Establish who needs to get copied, and be deliberate and intentional about it.  Be mindful of over-copying to people who don’t really need to be included.  Ask yourself why you are copying certain people.  If the thought occurs to you that you must cover your you-know-what by copying them, you might re-think the situation. So much energy is wasted on such efforts.  Be in integrity and have the necessary truthful conversations so that there is no need to cover your you-know-what.  Along those same lines, blind copying is almost always a bad idea.  Many an errant email has been sent to unknown people because of the reply-all feature.  And what if the person that you blind copied doesn’t realize he/she was blind copied?  Instant loss of credibility and trust erosion can occur.
  2. Create an agreement around response time.  It could be that you agree to always send a confirmation response that means you’ve read it – with a commitment for when you will take the action that is requested in the email. At least we then know that our email was read.  We can negotiate our commitments so that it works for the good of the group.
  3. Create clear, concise, tight communication with specific action requests.  There is no room for ambiguity in email.
  4. Remove all negative emotion.  Tone is absolutely a factor in the way in which an email communication is interpreted.  Lose it.
  5. Have difficult conversations in person.  Don’t hide behind email.  Be fearless.
  6. Use email as a way to follow up in writing what you think you heard in a live conversation.  It is astonishing the way in which we humans sometimes hear what we want to hear, and reiterating it back is one way to avoid miscommunication.
  7. Beware of the auto fill-in feature for email recipients.  Have you ever sent an email to someone highly inappropriate because you carelessly allowed the feature to think for you?
  8. Establish a protocol for identifying urgent email communications.  It’s most effective to use specific subject line language in order to relay the importance of a message.  And don’t cry wolf – use urgency sparingly.
  9. Organize your inbox in a way that has you properly managing it, rather than it managing you.
  10. Email makes good sense when it is saving time – keep that in mind when you are writing emails that take more than a few minutes to read.  Use bullet points whenever possible.
  11. Value and respect the time it takes someone to read your email, and also the time and attention it takes to create one.  Don’t allow that time to be squandered.
  12. If you are in doubt about whether or not to send an email, don’t send it.  Wait 24 hours, read it again, and then make your decision.  It’s best not to send an email in the heat of the battle.

As with all technology, email was created to be a useful tool.  We can choose to use it as such, or we can choose to become a victim of it.  Either way, it’s here to stay.  If the very idea of tackling your email stresses you out, it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship to it.  Create it as powerful, and it will be powerful.  Create it as the enemy, and it will be that for you.

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