Creative Leadership

Before You Melt Down Over an Email Read This Post

Every day, people misunderstand email messages. In fact, one study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that the tone in an email is misinterpreted 50 percent of the time. But it gets worse – the same study discovered 90 percent of people think they’ve actually correctly interpreted the tone of emails they receive. That means there’s a big gap when it comes to communicating by email.

And yet, people still take most email messages at face value. I had an experience recently when a friend was in tears over an email from her boss. She was absolutely convinced that because of the tone of the message, she was going to be fired. When she showed it to me, I didn’t get that idea at all, so I encouraged her to speak to her boss directly. She did, and guess what? She completely misunderstood the intention. It turned out to be a small problem rather than a catastrophic issue.

Next time you get a negative, weird, or simply strange email you don’t understand, don’t melt down. My tendency is often to go straight to the negative, but I’ve learned over the years that email is simply a terrible way to communicate.

Pick up the phone. Ask for clarity. Make sure your really understand the intention.

And as a “sender” never forget that you should never send an email over a critical issue. Don’t fire employees, criticize them, or engage in complex discussions – that’s simply not what email is for.

Fight the desire to melt down. Only when you understand the limitations of email, can you really use it effectively.

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  1. ‘never send an email over a critical issue” Great words of wisdom! I have clicked send many times and then had an uneasy feeling wondering if what I wrote came across the right way.

  2. Words to live by. 100%. I had a wonderful manager who received a very long-winded, vaguely racist email from a colleague criticizing, would you believe it, his choice of conference venue. Concerned, I went into my manager’s office and asked if he was okay. He said, “I’m fine. I’m disappointed. But this is a reflection on his character not mine.” He did not reply to the email immediately, instead he slept on it, and later the next day he responded simply, “Thank you, friend. I will take all you’ve said into consideration. Blessings.” Did my boss ‘take it into consideration’? Well, yes, but not in the way the writer had hoped…it changed nothing except his perception of his colleague. From that moment onward I’ve adopted the same policy.
    1. Do not reply immediately.
    2. Sleep on it.
    3. Respond with gratitude.
    4. Continue as planned.

  3. So true! I’m still surprised at the amount of people who fight their work and church battles on email. I once had a colleague who was quite jealous and insecure. She sat 4 feet away from me and use the excuse of me leaving my desk, to send me emails about something I’d said/done that she didn’t like. In the end, I started replying to her emails by answering her verbally, in a slightly higher volume so that others could hear. ‘Thanks Liz for your email…did you really think my writing was bad on that report?’ 😚 It soon stopped?

    I just think it’s the easy way out. It’s very easy to ‘fire from the hip’ and throw out words electronically, but the harder, less cowardly way is to have an actual conversation. You can then use email (if necessary) to confirm what was spoken about, in writing.

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