The Hazards of Email
Bring up the subject of workplace email during conversations with C.E.O.’s, and the mood often shifts. Email is a hot-button issue, and clearly a source of endless frustration.
The problem, of course, is that for all the obvious benefits of email in speeding communication, it is also a dangerous trap. Emails are too easily misinterpreted, with often-disastrous consequences for the culture of an organization, because they can damage whatever connective tissue exists between colleagues. Yet the allure of email is powerful, and people fall repeatedly into the same trap, thinking that email is the best way to accomplish a lot of work in a short time.
Many C.E.O.’s are perceptive observers of the hazards of email, and they establish a variety of rules in their companies to discourage its use and encourage people to talk instead.
“If there’s a conflict and you need to resolve it, you cannot really do it in an email because people don’t know tone,” said Nancy Aossey, chief executive of the International Medical Corps. “They don’t know expression. Even if they like you and they know you, they might not know if you were irritated or joking in an email. There are things we can say in conversation that you can’t say in email because people don’t know tone and expression.
“People change when they talk in person about a problem, not because they chicken out, but because they have the benefit of seeing the person, seeing their reaction, and getting a sense of the person. But arguing over email is about having the last word. It plays into something very dangerous in human behavior. You want to have the last word, and nothing brings that out more than email because you can sit there and hit ‘send,’ and then it just kind of ratchets up and you don’t have the benefit of knowing the tone.”
By talking over the phone or in person, you’ll not only avoid dangerous misunderstandings, but you’ll also develop relationships and a sense of trust with colleagues — essential ingredients in fostering the kind of high-performing culture that drives innovation.