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The day had been productive until now. Abby had made progress lately managing her time and attention. She was gaining a new sense of momentum in her work and it felt good.

Until this moment. 

That’s when she opened an email from her boss expressing concern for the way she handled a proposal to one of their key donors. Sharp, snarky and clinical, it entered her mind, dropped its load, then left her with that all too familiar sense of disrespect and incompetency.

She could feel her energy ebb like water leaving a bathtub.

Unfortunately this was not an isolated incident. She and her team members could count on emails of this kind most days. The toll these zingers were taking was accumulating. To make matters worse, her boss was clueless to the impact such emails had.

It was one thing to work long hours serving a fickle constituency. It was another to weather such emotional drain from within her own organization.

Abby and her team were experiencing toxic email – a quick efficient delivery of a message whose content or tone did not belong in an email.

Toxic email is perhaps one of the greatest drains on productivity, creativity and resiliency in the workplace. While email is an essential tool, its overhead is often overlooked.

According to one study, the average worker spends 23% of their time on email. A survey by AOL found close to half of all email users describe a near addictive kind of dependency on the tool. While most would say they only check email a few times a day, the observed reality is more like once every 5 minutes! 

Greatly reducing the effectiveness of email is its lack of important non-verbal elements of communication. As a result emails are often misunderstood. Cooperation within teams can actually decline the more email is used for a given topic or project. 

Email becomes toxic when it conveys negative information, criticism, dissent and other serious messages that may best be conveyed through other forms of communication.

It takes over a minute to refocus your attention after being interrupted by an email. It can take hours if that email is perceived as negative.

By observing a few ground rules, your team can eliminate the toxins from email, and instill a new level of conversational integrity into the workflow.

Email should be used with the reader in mind, not the sender

As our most efficient form of workplace communication, we are can often send email without much thought. It’s mostly about what we want to say, not about what the recipient may hear. 

If you want your message to actually be “received”, it’s important to think first about the needs of the reader, then let your email be constructed accordingly. This gives rise to the second rule.

How you say it is as important as what you say

Since we are dealing with people here, the way you word your message is as important as the message itself. You may even discover it can’t be conveyed through email. The non-verbals won’t show up in your email. That calls for a little extra thought to the words and tone you use.

Lose the sarcasm and the snarky, direct tones. I’ll even go out on a professional limb and suggest emoticons have their place in business email. Write as though you are talking to a person, not a screen. 🙂

Establish “best use” scenarios for email in your organization

As with any tool, email can be over used. Agreeing upon a few “best use” scenarios can prove helpful, such as:

  • Using email mainly when a written record may be needed to document agreement, action plans and expectations.
  • Mass notifications only for simple matters. For complex matters direct communication is needed.
  • Responding to emails within 24 hours in some way. If a complete response cannot be given, offer an idea of when the sender can expect an answer. Consider using an auto responder if necessary.
  • If you as a sender are expecting a response, be specific as to what you need and by when.
  • Only addressing the email ‘To’ line to the people you need a response from.
  • Using ‘CC’ only for FYI recipients…with no response expected.

Avoid these “worst use” scenarios at all costs

  • Do not use email for criticism or handling conflicts. When a matter becomes conflictual, it’s time to talk with the person directly.
  • Email should not be a substitute for an uncomfortable conversation. Those are best handled direct as well. Don’t throw email salvo’s at each other and then hide. Leaders this is especially for you.
  • Email is not a quick turnaround form of communication. If an immediate response is needed, call or text the person.
  • Be aware of how we all exaggerate our communication styles when under stress. Those exaggerations are more likely to come across adversely in an email. (See Rule #1)

When in doubt, give ‘em a shout

With email, you have to over communicate to simply stay even. Don’t get trapped by the efficiency of email over the efficacy of direct verbal communications. Remember, you can use your phone for talking as well.

Just like improperly cooked seafood, email can become toxic when it is sent half-baked. With a little thought, this can be one quick way to impact the productivity, creativity, morale and confidence in leadership all throughout the organization.

What are your thoughts?

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