"Managing Your Email" About Chris Articles Research Workshops and Conferences


Easy doesn’t equal effective

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Are you bewildered by people's use of e-mail at work? Do you receive e-mails that surprise you with either their content or their tone or both?

The fact is, we make assumptions about communicating by e-mail, stemming from one basic premise: E-mail is easy to use. But many of us find out the hard way that ease of use does not equal good communication.

We can define good communication as the ability to create a shared understanding between a sender and a receiver. Essential ingredients in this mix are the channel and the message itself. Marshall McLuhan's probe "the medium is the message" reinforces the notion that we judge messages more by the channel used to deliver them.

There are four common e-mail assumptions, all of which can cause serious miscommunication. They are:

Composition isn't required

Whether you have received the world's longest e-mail (the paragraph that never ends) or the world's shortest (one-letter responses such as Y, N, O or K), you are no doubt familiar with the challenges of composing e-mail messages at work. Writing weaknesses include verbosity or poor structure, which can create negative impressions on recipients. Likewise, our errors in spelling and grammar are seen as both careless and unprofessional.

E-mail has most definitely brought back the art of written communication, and our expectations around good composition. It has also exposed those of us who have challenges in this area. Part of our confusion here revolves around whether we think e-mail is written speech or spoken writing. What we need to do is view each e-mail communication as a separate and unique composition, where we must think about our audience, our intention and conveying our meaning to the receiver.

Sterile bits of information

While e-mail can be seen as moving information by personal motion; it is also information with emotion. In the absence of the barriers of time and distance, e-mail messages are a very direct route from one person's thoughts to another, without actually being present. Therefore, e-mail messages themselves carry an emotional weight that many users underestimate.

Too often, we send messages that we should deliver in person. Unfortunately, the e-mail channel makes it easy for us to write things that we wouldn't say directly to a person -- it lets us hide.

Although e-mail is a quick way to share written information, it may not be the way to create that right kind of mutual understanding. I'm sure you can recall e-mail messages that caused you alarm, concern or anger, yet most of them never had that intention.

Naked words on a monitor are indeed powerful. We need to appreciate this aspect and ensure that we build both courtesy and a matter-of-fact attitude into our e-mails; be personable not personal.

E-mail is democratic

Another often-heralded benefit of e-mail is its ability to connect all users and virtually transcend hierarchies. Now everyone can send messages to everyone else in the company, including the CEO and members of the board.

What has actually evolved in workplaces is a quite different reality.

Senior executives may see your e-mail but it's just as likely that their executive assistant will handle it instead. So yes, you can use e-mail to reach the offices of the powerful, but your message may now have far less impact than a personal letter. While some cyber buffs may have regarded e-mail early on as the key to global connectivity, world peace, and public harmony, it has evolved into just another communication channel with its own set of barriers.

Remember that sending an e-mail, especially to high profile individuals, is no guarantee that your message will actually be seen by the intended recipient.

E-mail is private

Most of us are aware of those highly publicized corporate lawsuits that centre on crucial e-mail messages. Batteries of lawyers examining hundreds of e-mails retrieved from executive offices and then assessing their context -- what were the messages really saying? Was there more than one meaning? Wow, they said that?

Closer to home, what about the e-mails we send every day in the normal course of business? Most people don't give a second thought to what they put on e-mail. Cute sarcasm like "I hope no one finds out how we are gouging our customers on this product!" taken suddenly out of context and put in a lawyer's hands, can become a powerful smoking gun -- the "I was just kidding" retort doesn't work here.

These days, more people and organizations are shunning the use of e-mail to convey details of highly competitive or sensitive corporate situations. Verbal discussions and cryptic note taking still afford the very best protection for both information containment and control.

E-mail may have been billed as the great liberator of communication flows at work, but thoughtfulness and restraint in properly using this channel are the real virtues of a good communicator.

« Return to Articles

Christina Cavanagh is a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London and author of Managing Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox, to be published in August.