While email has made workplace communication efficient, there are times when we need face-to-face conversations. At these times, defaulting to email is risky and may result in workplace nightmares.
When Technology Leads to Trouble
Who doesn't love moving issues, problems, and grievances off a work desk? While autocorrect protects us from grammatical errors, there is no discernment checker that alerts us when emailing is inappropriate and a conversation is necessary.
Email is your enemy when communicating concerns with a co-worker or manager, when addressing performance issues, and when discussing a complex or contentious topic. Conversations trump technology and derail disaster when giving reprimands and getting someone back on track.
Never email a colleague when you're in conflict. While confident in your ability to hide your frustration and anger, it's next to impossible to compose a message presenting your case without releasing emotions. Sending emails when you're angry or frustrated invites gossip and misunderstanding to move in and multiply. The words we compose while facing a computer screen are words we would never say to someone in person. Impulsive, mouse-to-mouse combat leads to workplace word wars and leaves a trail of HR violations.
Email Limitations & Liabilities
Email is devoid of context, and human beings communicate through body language, expression, and voice. Tone is difficult to interpret and easily misinterpreted without hearing the inflection of someone's voice. Stop and reflect on the number of times you've read an email and wondered, "Why is this person so angry?" when in fact, that's just the way you read the message. We base much of what we interpret on our ever-changing mood.
It can be challenging, awkward, and difficult to talk to others about concerns, performance gaps, and needed improvements. Even so, defaulting to email in an attempt to prevent coming across frustrated and angry is risky. Instead of averting conflict, you may unintentionally start a workplace war.
Create Clarity: Email or Conversation
Peter Drucker hit a bullseye when he said "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Regardless of your organization's strategic planning and commitment to goals, the health of your workplace culture determines your bottom line. Employees need clarity on when conversations trump email, and they need to learn discernment. Expecting today's tech-savvy culture to know when to walk away from a computer is a faulty assumption.
Train and Model Employees to Communicate
The way employees communicate will make or break any organization. Telling people to dialogue about concerns without teaching them to do so is an infraction waiting to happen. Training employees to communicate concerns while expressing their desire for others to be more successful builds trust and partnership. Given that 65-80% of performance problems result from strained relationships—not from deficits in individual employees' skill or motivation (Daniel Dana, PhD, Managing Differences)—communication training is an investment with strong returns.
When we train people to communicate their concerns effectively, they will have the courage to delete their email, approach a coworker or supervisor, and ask for a ten-minute conversation. I wonder how many misunderstandings people can avoid when two colleagues determine not to email and instead talk together?
Email is a powerful and useful business tool when we use it for the right purpose. While electronic conversations are convenient and time-efficient, it's best to address some topics and situations through conversations. At those times, divert disaster by deleting your drafted email and using verbal dialogue instead.
Lorie Reichel Howe is the founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management. She teaches managers and teams to have "safe conversations"—transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues. These conversations foster greater innovation, inclusion, and collaboration within the organization.
Lorie has diverse career experience as an educator, leadership development trainer, mediator, and conflict coach. Learn more about Lorie's impact at www.ConversationsIntheWorkplace.com