The 5 Worst Email Mistakes and the 5 Best Ways to Avoid Them

How many times have you regretted an email that you send in haste, anger, or ignorance? Have you ever hit “reply all” accidentally, leading some of your inadvertent recipients seething at you? Some email sins can also be errors of omission, not commission, when you fail to reply to an important message. Your recipient feels ignored, insulted, or betrayed, assuming you just don’t care enough to bother to reply. New research on email patterns among corporate managers shows just how significant those omissions can be.

MIT’s Peter Gloor and colleagues (2017) sought to determine whether they could predict which managers would voluntarily leave their companies by examining their patterns of email-related behaviors. Specifically, the researchers were interested in learning whether managers who had mentally checked out prior to their voluntary resignation from the firm were less responsive to email requests from other employees, and when they did respond, expressed more emotionality. Although the purpose of the MIT study was to examine what organizational psychologists call job “embeddedness,” or emotional connection to work, the findings also provide insight into why one of the most inviolate rules of good email use is to respond to others in a timely fashion.

To test the theory that job disengagement relates to email behavior, Gloor et al. examined the emails of 866 employees randomly selected from a possible group of 1566, all of whom worked for a large major international corporation. The findings showed that managers who left, compared to those who stayed, were less plugged in to the email networks of their firms. Being emotionally connected to coworkers could, in the words of the authors, “translate into friendships and acquaintances ties which may serve to buffer the stress and tedium of everyday work” (p. 350). When you lack those connections, not only can you feel less attached to your job, but you also become disengaged from that all-important social network within the company.

Your emails, then, reflect the quality of your relationships with the people in your social network, even if those people are professional colleagues or supervisees. When you won’t respond to emails or rif eact in an excessively emotional way, you’re communicating to others the impression that you’re seeking to end your relationships with them. From the findings of the MIT team, we therefore gain one important insight into how to use, and abuse, email as a method of communication.

Now, let’s look at the five don’ts and five do’s to help guide you to being a successful emailer to all of those in your social network:

The 5 don’ts:

  1. Fail to respond: Ignoring an email for a prolonged period of time signals that you just don’t consider the recipient all that important. Lack of a response is that sin of omission which can weigh just as heavily as some of the following sins of commission.
  2. End a relationship: Breaking up over email isn’t just cowardly, it’s also hurtful and insensitive. Whether you’re leaving a company or a relationship of any kind, it’s best to take on the individual face-to-face or at least via a phone call.
  3. Complain argumentatively: It’s all to easy to use email to unload onto the recipient the anger and irritation you feel about something the recipient has done.  After all, your recipient isn’t there to offer a defense. That angry complaint is likely to backfire at a later point.
  4. Push send without checking: Impulsively written emails, such as those highly emotional ones studied by the MIT team, can contain not only overly emotive language, but may even go to the wrong recipient. Firing off an email without checking can also make you appear careless and sloppy, as you’re more likely to fail to spell check or check to whom it’s going.
  5. Put into writing words that can become the basis for a grievance: There’s a reason that some people put at the bottom of their email the warning that email is not a secure or confidential form of communication. If your recipient in a work setting later wants to show that you interfered with his or her promotion or hiring, an email can stand as evidence in a way that oral communication does not.

To counteract these email don’ts, here are the 5 do’s:

  1. Maintain a positive, or at least neutral, tone: When people end their emails with the sign off of “Cheers,” or “Best,” it’s because they wish to appear pleasant. Even if you have to say something critical in an email, you can do so without appearing vindictive or spiteful.
  2. Use a word processing program to draft a long email: If you are a sloppy proofreader, no matter how hard you try not to be, it’s good practice to write the email as a document that you can spell-check. This approach will also slow you down, keeping you from sending off those impulsive messages that can haunt you later.
  3. Be specific about any instructions or plans to meet the recipient: Emails that are vague about important details can prove highly frustrating to the recipient. Don’t assume automatically that an acquaintance who you’re inviting to your home for the first time knows your address. Also, be specific about time and date to avoid the recipient’s mistakingly coming too early or too late, or on the wrong day altogether.
  4. Offer a compliment and/or a thank-you: Let the people in your social network know that you appreciate what they’re doing. The opposite of a complaint, a compliment or a thank-you reinforces the perception that you care about those you work with or the people in your broader social network.
  5. Take advantage of email’s potential to let you connect: Unlike the old days in which you actually had to compose and then mail a physical letter, email makes it extremely easy to reach out to people you haven’t seen in a while, or even in decades. Take out that old contact list of  yours and see who you’ve lost contact with. A cheery hello will brighten their day, and yours.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, “Fulfillment at Any Age,” to discuss today’s blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

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