“Have you agreed with Jim on the next steps?” “Yes, I sent him an email.” Have you ever had a conversation like this? Have it ever happened that Jim didn’t do what was “agreed”? Chances are that you have encountered situations like this. In fact, I see this type of exchanges very often and I also see that they often end up badly. Missed deadlines, misunderstandings in communication, hurt feelings, damaged reputations, and toxic atmosphere in the team.
“Sending an email doesn’t mean that you communicated.”
One of the biggest fallacies in the corporate world is the believe that when you send an email to someone you actually communicated the information you intended. Maybe yes, maybe no. The thing is, you don’t really know unless you get a feedback that leaves no room for misinterpretation. The person or people you sent email to may not have read it, or they may have read it and dismissed as unimportant, or they may have misunderstood the message. So many things could go wrong and unless you follow up and verify whether the message was understood than you can’t say that you communicated.
It is your responsibility
“I sent them already three emails and they are not responding,” is often used sentence by frustrated employees and managers complaining about others. The person in question then blames the others for not being collaborative, not being professional, being difficult to work with. Depending on the company culture he may even be right. If the company culture is such that it is expected to respond to emails in timely manner, then it is understood that you are frustrated when others don’t follow the same rules. But even if that is the case, it is till your fault that the message didn’t get across. It is still your responsibility to ensure that the things you wanted communicated get across. If email doesn’t work try something else.
When email doesn’t work?
What are the most common situations when people use email inappropriately and then are surprised or even angry when not getting the desired results?
- You ask for urgent help – and no one responds. Well, this technology wasn’t meant for getting responses to urgent requests. If something is urgent you need to talk to the person. You may still follow up with summary of the conversation over email, but the first step is to pick up a phone and talk.
- You ask for commitment – and not getting one. Again, if you want someone to do something, especially when there is a requirement of bigger time and effort investment it is preferable to have the conversation in person or over the phone. It is too easy to “commit” to something by mindlessly typing, “yes, I will do it,” and then forgetting about it or not giving it a priority. When you talk to the person it creates a bigger sense of urgency and it also hits the person on emotional level. It feels like a real promise.
- You ask for input or feedback – and you don’t get much back. Only people who truly care about the topic and are worried that it is not going in the direction they would like will get back to you. They may write a long list of comments or even pick up a phone and call. But there are others who do have opinion, but don’t have time to write it down, or may feel that you surely got it from someone else. If you truly want a feedback then following your email with a phone call is the only sure way to get it.
- You share vision – and people don’t get it. It is very difficult to convey an inspiring vision over email. People won’t read long messages, will just skim through, will see the words but not the picture you wanted to paint. To share an important vision and direction for your team you need to get in front of them and talk. This will ensure not only that everyone will actually hear it, but it creates an opportunity for asking questions and clarifying what exactly you mean. Again, you can then follow up regularly with some written communication but you need to talk first.
- You communicate changes – and people miss them. Especially when having bigger teams there is no way every single person will read the email you sent. There will be those who won’t even open it, those who skim through, those who misunderstood the changes or the timeline. Most of them will then hear it second or third hand, rumors will take place of the official communication and it leads to confusion. Changes should be communicated in person in simple words and reiterated by written note that is easy to understand and difficult to misinterpret.
When to use email?
It almost feels like email is the worst communication channel ever. Fortunately, there are many situations when it is appropriate or in fact even the best way to communicate certain information.
- You want to share non-critical information – let’s not waste everyone’s time by talking to them directly or having an all-hands meeting. For information that are not critical to the job but are meant just to keep people informed about what’s going on in the company in case they are interested an email or a newsletter will do the job nicely.
- You want to give bigger group an opportunity to comment – sometimes you want to collect ideas and suggestions from big group of people so some survey can be a great way to do that. Being it over email or even better through some online tool you can collect valuable information and give people the feeling that their voice is being heard.
- You want to summarize the decisions and action items – written communication is a must as a follow up of meetings or conversations where decisions were done and action items issued. By writing the notes of the meeting you are double checking whether everyone truly understood the decisions taken and what is expected from them.
- You want to follow up on a conversation – very similar to a previous point. For some conversations it is a good practice to send a follow-up note to reiterate what was agreed and highlight any actions to be taken. It can help both sides to stay focused on the core of the problem that was discussed, makes it easier to follow-up on progress, and helps to hold each other accountable.
As you can see email communication has its place in a modern workplace and is a valuable tool for interaction between people. Just make sure that you don’t overuse this communication channel and catch yourself when other means of getting your message out there are more appropriate.
What is your take on email communication? How do you ensure that you prevent misunderstandings or things slipping through cracks when communicating to bigger group of people on daily basis?
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