Let’s talk about misuse of email as a means of communication in the workplace. Email is a one-way means of written messaging that has become a preferred “means of communication” by many in the corporate world. But here are the oft-cited shortcomings with email:
This is a result of the two-edged sword of email being used as a communication tool requiring a response. It is certainly convenient to send an email to multiple recipients, but the message is sent at one point in time and read at another point in time that could vary by seconds, minutes, days, weeks or even months. If the sender is waiting on a response from the recipient(s), email should not be expected to be a timely means of getting a response.
Those endless back-and-forth email chains can be particularly problematic. They usually involve multiple recipients who may be responding to one particular link in the chain, while others have already responded to that or may have moved onto other items around the same topic.
This is one of the biggest pitfalls of trying to use email as a means of communication. Very few people are adept enough at the use of the written word to fully explain something while eliminating all possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader.
The written word lacks the nonverbal elements that comprise the bulk of how we interpret interpersonal communication. It is consequently very easy for the reader to infer meaning that was not intended by the writer, and unfortunately this is often taken negatively.
I find this to be a particularly problematic reason for using email as a means of communication. People in leadership positions say that they were taught to document conversations or decisions via email, so that there is no future plausible deniability by anyone. This is a cultural problem that goes far beyond simple communication best practice. If this describes your team, there is a lack of trust at the core.
Having identified the challenges related to using email for communication, there are fairly simple solutions for each. Here are some of the best;
If a timely response is required, use a timely communication tool. There are plenty of telepresence tools available that allow for brief unscheduled and highly interactive virtual meetings. Action items can be addressed in the moment without delay.
In-person or telepresence meetings are keys to eliminating all of the back-and-forth emails and the many out-of-sequence responses that result. A 15-minute meeting can avoid dozens of emails and get everyone involved aligned quickly, identifying any gaps in understanding and addressing or assigning ownership of all action items.
There is no substitute for being able to see, hear, and converse with the speaker to improve clarity and minimize misunderstanding. Adding the nonverbal clues of posture, voice inflexion, passion, and attentiveness, the viewer can better understand the message. If there is something unclear, it permits clarifying questions in the moment rather than a series of emails.
If you always have to prove something happened or didn’t happen, then you are constantly looking over your shoulder rather than toward the horizon. When decisions are made, they should be captured, published and stored in meeting notes. When discipline is needed, it should be documented on appropriate disciplinary forms, not via email.
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