Are Emails Killing Your Culture With Convenience?
Ever had the situation occur where what you meant to communicate was totally misunderstood by the other person. Now think about the specific instances in which this has happened to you, or you have heard it happen to someone else. Now ask, how many of these instances involved email?
I was recently discussing a communication issue with a coaching client and I asked them what their response to a particular incident was. They said, “Well I told them x, y, z.” In actual fact, they didn’t tell them anything. They emailed them.
Two people will read the same email in different ways depending on their situation, frames of reference and potential mood at that point in time. Can you always tell the tone of an email? Are you always able to identify when someone is using sarcasm, irony and pathos in an email? Does your ability to detect this differ depending on how well you know the person you’re having an email exchange with? Is it becoming blindingly obvious to you that the source of the problem with email communication deals directly with conveying emotion?
Technologies such as Skype, MSN Messenger, Facebook and Twitter, have enabled us to ‘chat’ in real time. These short, sharp bursts of verbal or written communication are designed to simulate how we converse in real life, and by their very nature are informal and unstructured, just like a face-to-face conversation. These technologies are all about immediacy.
Email, on the other hand, is “non-real time” or “asynchronous time” messaging and it lends itself to more detailed , dare I say, long winded dumps of information that may or may not be accompanied by an attachment or twenty. The nature of email communication means that we are able to transfer a far greater depth of information. However, with depth comes increased opportunity for our message to be ambiguous or misconstrued. Formality and structure are critical to successful email communication.
Poor communication can have a dramatic affect on organisational culture. I think we get ourselves into trouble when, seeking the immediacy and instant gratification we’ve learnt through chat and IM platforms, we apply these same principles to our emails. Is an email really the most appropriate method to communicate the information required? It may well be but, if so, have you followed a formal structure that will ensure your message is not misconstrued or misunderstood in any way?
I think most of us know when we’ve sent an email that we shouldn’t, and we all have our own unique set of reasons for doing so. However, I would suggest that, overwhelmingly, it comes down to convenience. Just like it’s convenient to go to the drive-thru for lunch or dinner, it also appears more convenient to shoot off an email than pick up the phone and convey and debate the information there and then. But as we know, convenience can come at a cost.
The toxicity of email wars can be just as damaging on an organisation as an excess of unhealthy foods on your body. Eventually it catches up with you. Without argument, email has its place, but if there is any chance that my message could be construed as ambiguous, sensitive or open to interpretation, I apply a simple rule. Pick. Up. The. Phone.
I’d be keen to hear your own experiences with this. Have you been involved in or been aware of “email wars” in your own team or organisation? How do you avoid the pitfalls of convenience at the expense of positive outcomes?
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