There is no doubt that email has many positive attributes when used appropriately. It speeds communication. It invites or informs many people simultaneously. It saves money on postage. However, overall project or team efficiency can be negatively affected by the misuse of email.
Circumstances might not allow for a face-to-face discussion with our global interactions these days, and the matter might be too pressing to take the time to pen a note. If that’s the case, I recommend taking the time to pick up the phone, if time zones allow, rather than (or in addition to) sending an email.
Deliver Bad News
It’s easier to deliver bad news related to project status if you don’t have to look the person to whom you are delivering it in the eye to see their disappointment and, maybe, to help suggest corrective actions. The truth of the matter is that you were likely hired into your Corporate America job to be part of solutions rather than simply forwarding notifications.
As a Program Manager of a project with an estimated annual revenue of $500 million, I received an email from a teammate that said something like “…and if you don’t do x, y and z within the next 3 days, your project will be delayed by…”. First of all, was it only MY project? Was she not on the same team as me? Secondly, if $500 million in revenue isn’t compulsion enough to get a project launched on time, what is? I would have expected her to immediately approach me so we could address the situation together.
Remember the feeling you used to get when you read a handwritten letter? It took somebody the effort of actually writing and somehow their personality was evident in the lettering or ink color selection. They usually cared about their spelling and grammar and took care in the creation of the letter. It’s a far cry from receiving an email full of half sentences and misspellings with poor punctuation and realizing that you are part of somebody’s attempt to multitask today.
Interaction used to force people that were uncomfortable in social situations to stretch to be contributors on a team. Today, they hide behind their computer screens, happy to not interact. The relief they feel from the interaction avoidance is outweighed by the loss of the benefits that such interaction affords. When challenging situations occur, teams often succeed and fail by the nuances of how well they know each other and how they can count on each other. You don’t get to know each other at the same depth if you only communicate through email.
Tones and inflections are non-existent in email. Often, attempts to introduce tones and inflections by using sarcastic wording can be misinterpreted and lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Something that might come across as a humorous one-liner in a face-to-face conversation can be perceived as insensitive or insulting in email.
I don’t know about you, but I receive many emails on any given day. For many of them, they contain a message that is substantive enough that if it were a phone call, and if I rated it a high enough priority, I would spend an hour or a day processing the details for the progression of the project that I was working on. It’s a cop out for the sending to just throw it over the wall and leave it to the reader to figure out how important it is and how to fit it into his or her day.
Sure, the sender gets to feel like they “took action on” or “processed” a hundred different items that day. However, most people are employed to advance the project to which they are assigned, not to clear out their inbox. Most of the time, crossing something off your task list means the task doesn’t need to be done anymore, the question has been answered or the problem has been solved.
Simply speed-reading and then forwarding something doesn’t cut it. Before email, those types of assignments used to be gathered on an agenda and then team members would assemble in a conference room for organic interaction of carbon-based life forms (people would actually talk to each other). We called them meetings. Some things would be solved. Some questions would be answered. Some assignments would be given and, most importantly, accepted with agreement on prioritization.
For all of its benefits, email is just another tool in the toolbox and our ability to select the best tool for the particular task will still be judged by those around us. So, before you fire off the next email that is either so sloppy that people wonder what you mean or so long that nobody has time to read it, consider whether a phone call or a note would be the better tool selection.