A Manager's Guide To Email

What IT managers dash off in their emails can affect their careers. Columnist Eric Spiegel offers tips on how to avoid common -- and serious -- email communication pitfalls.
Press the send button. Really, it's OK. Just do it. So what if hundreds of customers will receive the email? So what if your boss is being copied? Go on and press send!

On the other hand, maybe there are some things to consider before taking that leap of faith. As a matter of fact, sending an email on faith alone is no sure path up the corporate ladder -- and might actually cause a nasty fall.

We all have written a very well-crafted email and spent a good deal of time staring at the send button with some sense of trepidation. I will try to relieve that sense of impending doom and help you avoid a perilous misstep with some tips on how managers can successfully use email.

Let's start with the basics. Some people may believe that an email with many grammatical errors and misspellings is a sign of a very busy, important person. In reality, it means the person didn't care enough about the message or the recipient to take a few seconds to spell check and re-read the message. And yes that means you busy, important people with PDAs as well. The message should not be distorted just because you can't type with your thumbs!

To get beyond the basics, I spoke with Dr. Hany Malik, of Suntiva Executive Consulting based in Tysons Corner, Va. Malik's MBA and Ph.D. in clinical psychology come in handy when coaching Fortune 500 executives on how to avoid email pitfalls.

Reflecting Your Image

He suggests avoiding a carelessly written message by checking your emails for errors prior to sending.

"Emails reflect your image as well as the value you place on the recipients," says Malik.

He says to keep in mind that email does not contain vocal inflection, gestures or a shared environment; therefore emails must be phrased carefully to eliminate any possible misunderstandings.

"Content of email should be completely clear, unambiguous, while conveying the proper tone so no time is wasted on clarification," Malik says. Consider displaying emotion through caps and italics, but avoid cutesy symbols in business transactions (J), unless it is standard practice to use these emoticons within your team.

This non-verbal void can be challenging when trying to write an email to inspire your team. Malik says the difference between a good email and powerful one is a leader's understanding of emotions, both their own and their recipients.

"Effective leaders are capable of accurately assessing their own emotional state and how emotions will be interpreted by the recipient before pushing that send button," he says. "The unknown consequences of pressing send can be intimidating and paralyzing."

Remember that scary send button? This is why we must do our best to harness our emotions and take steps to reduce uncertainties.

To press that send button with confidence, you not only have to follow the basics, but you have to be aware of your own subtle negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, to avoid potentially disastrous outcomes. If you are peeved about the topic or frustrated with the recipient, it is best to write a draft and let it sit for a day before sending it.

Malik believes managers are prone to oversights because the subconscious wants negativity to leak out.

"Your best bet is to have a trusted colleague read it and provide feedback. Then apply the feedback and reread it again," he says. "To further protect yourself, leave your recipient's name off of the send list just in case your subconscious takes over." This will help avoid a "heat of the moment" accidental pressing of the send button.

A Power for Good

It is also possible to use an email to inspire individuals to action or empower them to make profound decisions that can positively change organizations. Malik was working with a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who was new to the company, having come from a strong background in leading politically motivated organizations.

"He immediately saw how employees were unhappy and unmotivated because it was extremely difficult to make decisions," Malik says. "He wasn't afraid to write his initial impressions in an email to the entire company, stating this was one of the most adversely political organization he had worked in. By stating what the prior CEO wouldn't, he established credibility and gave credence to his commitment to making profound changes in the organization's culture."

Before writing a battle cry to the troops, consider one thing -- if you aren't sure about saying it in person, then don't put it in the email. If you say the words out loud and follow the basic rules, these high-risk, high-reward emails can have a powerful, positive impact.

Malik has seen excellent results when executives used email in four positive contexts.

  • First, use email to give praise, congratulating your team and individuals. Save these emails and save time by incorporating them in performance reviews.
  • Second, use email to solicit input by posing questions about how to improve your business process and providing summarized, relevant feedback to the team. You may even be able to use the consolidated responses to quickly build an FAQ list, operations manual or other procedural guidelines.
  • Third, email can be used to create community by keeping people up-to-date with status reports, announcing accomplishments and actively increasing collaboration between different sites, shifts, and offices.
  • Fourth, email can be an incredibly effective brainstorming tool. Encourage and welcome random responses and short-burst thinking.

Finally, Malik suggests that you go with your strengths. If you have good interpersonal skills and relationship-building skills, consider picking up the phone or paying the person a visit. If you are a better writer than face-to-face communicator, then use email.

Most important, communicate interaction preferences to people you are working with. Some people don't like to receive a lot of email, while others prefer to have all that documentation. Just don't go out of your way to communicate in a way that isn't appreciated.

I have to add one last piece of advice. Don't ever state any thing in an email that you wouldn't want the world to read. Email is mostly unsecured and can be forwarded anywhere. Don't become the next urban legend who flamed their manager in an email to a friendly coworker named Mark, only to have it accidentally sent to their manager...who also happens to be named Mark. Love that auto-fill feature!

Are you ready to press that send button yet? Now that you are armed with email best practices, go on and press it with full confidence. On the other hand, maybe run spell check one last time.

0 Comments (click to add your comment)
Comment and Contribute


(Maximum characters: 1200). You have characters left.