The Horrors of Email Abuse

I teach and preach leadership to one audience or another 365 days each year. The biggest slice of the leadership pie is probably communication. One of the most interesting topics within the area of communication is email use. Excuse me… what I meant is email abuse! Technology is fascinating but it must be used with good judgment and too often that is not the case.

Email is a spectacular communication channel. It is fast and efficient and easy to use. In fact, it is so easy, it can be abused and degrade the quality of your communication, thus the quality of your relationships.

See if you can relate to these issues. Each represents a sign that you are abusing email. Have you ever:

1. Hit send and then experienced some level of panic? This might be driven by your realization that the note was too emotional. It might be because you are worried you did not articulate a point well enough. Maybe you feel you left something out. The bottom line – experiencing some level of panic suggests you were not using a good enough communication channel.

2. Called or dropped in on the email recipient to see how they interpreted it? If you have picked up the phone or walked down the hall, those are behavioral indicators that you lack confidence in the message you sent. Again, this suggests that you were not using the best communication channel for the message.

3. Become aware while you are typing that you’re saying something differently than you would say in person? If you sense that you are crafting a message differently than you would in a face-to-face meeting (becoming to verbose, redundant, or negative), you need to either pick up the phone, get face-to-face if possible, or at least make a conscious effort to have your email message consistent with what you would say in person.

4. Found yourself rewriting and editing an email for a significant number of minutes. For the vast majority of emails, if you are spending more than three or four minutes, you are overthinking the issue or the issue is complex enough to warrant a higher quality communication channel.

5. Knowingly used email to avoid having a face-to-face conversation. This is a big no-no. With rare exceptions (e.g., you truly have no time for anything else), the goal is always to have the most important, difficult, and complex conversations in real time. Face-to-face trumps skyping, skyping bests the phone, and the phone is generally superior to email.

Let’s be honest. The real problem is that you are not the linguist you thought you were. Most of us are not great at crafting a cogent narrative. We ramble, choose the wrong words, mess up punctuation, unproductively use innuendo, and too often indulge in texting practices that confuse many readers. LOL TTYL!

Here is my advice:

Start by admitting you are not a worldclass email athlete. I can prove it to you. Go dig up a few recent emails and show them to someone other than the recipient – someone who nonetheless knows what is being discussed in the emails. Ask them what they see in your message and compare that to the message you thought was being conveyed. The gap might surprise you.

Before you begin to write any email, do an 80/20 check. Any urgent or hugely important email is a twenty percenter – try not to use email if it can be avoided. Any message that is common, less strategic, and not urgent is an eighty percenter – feel free to use email for efficiency.

Don’t abuse the bcc! This function should be used rarely. Used too often it is a sign that you are over politicizing everything. You risk being viewed as a tattletale, a brown-noser, or simply too political.

When in doubt always choose the next highest quality communication channel available. Be sure to use face-to-face as liberally as your schedule will allow. Do this not only for message clarity and impact but because genuine human interaction (not electronically facilitated) is the foundation of rapport building for quality professional relationships.

Finally, if you run a team or department, have the email talk with the troops. Establish norms similar to those noted in this article. Seriously consider having a no email day once per month to compliment the no smart phone day you should also be having every month. Throw in a few no meetings days and your productivity will skyrocket!

Seriously, communication is difficult enough when we are face-to-face. Don’t make it more difficult than necessary by over indulging in email or other forms of electronic communication. Step away from the keyboard and go talk to someone.


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