WARNING: Don’t Use Email This Way. Ever.

warningI look back on it now with complete and total embarrassment.

I had been tossing and turning since 2:00 AM, and it was now 4:00 AM. A slight that had been served me became amplified in my sleepless mind into a full-blown violation of my basic human rights. I was incensed!

Finally getting out of bed, I authored a sharply worded, extensively documented email, and sent it to every person on the planet. Then I went back to bed.

I awoke to utter humiliation and weeks of apologies.

We’ve all done something like that with email. This amazing technology provides us with the power to ruin relationships and destroy our brand as a leader with a click of the send button. Here are three things to avoid to keep that from happening to you:

EMAIL WARNING ONE: Don’t send under the influence of adrenaline

The great power of email, or course, is its immediacy. We can’t imagine the time when we waited a few days for a letter to arrive, let alone a week. “Snail mail” we call it with a sneer.

Immediacy is also one of email’s great weaknesses as well. There are times, especially when issues are tense and relationships strained, that a few days, or even a week, is exactly what’s needed before engaging in a conversation.

Here’s why.

The first thing that happens to us in a tense situation is that our emotions sense danger and adrenaline, the brain’s emergency response system, surges through our veins. That surge of adrenaline makes us more focused, more intense, and more prone to act aggressively to protect our turf. Drunk on adrenaline we can say things or do things that we regret later. Anyone who witnessed Richard Sherman’s rant after winning the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49’ers knows what I mean.

This is referred to as “emotional hijacking” and it’s an apt image. Emotions charge the cockpit of our brain, take over the controls, and crash our relationships, and our brand as a leader, into the ground. When an overwhelming impulse to send that perfectly worded email to put someone in their place comes over you, stop. Do nothing. Don’t write anything. Get control of your emotions, then, and only then, take action.

EMAIL WARNING TWO: Don’t correct via email

A second warning to heed regarding outbound email is this: never use it for correction. Please don’t conclude from that statement that you should never correct your people. That’s not true at all. Just don’t use the medium of email to do it.

Again, here’s why.

Correcting people via email is one of those things that’s efficient but not effective. It’s efficient because, being a busy leader, you’re able to scratch something from your list by zipping off a well-worded rebuke and getting on with your day. The problem is: you can’t control the context in which that email will be received. And context is everything when it comes to correction.

Consider these possibilities:

  • The person who receives your email may have just been given bad news, like losing their biggest account or having a parent rushed to the hospital, and your correction rubs salt in their wounds.
  • The person who receives your email may read it quickly in-between meetings and miss the point entirely.
  • The person who receives your email may read it over and over and over again, becoming obsessed with the slightest shading of a word or phrase and losing complete perspective and objectivity.
  • The person who receives your email may share it with other people, making your private correspondence a topic of public conversation.

When you correct via email you don’t intend for any of these things to happen, but they do every day in business as effectiveness is sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. When you need to provide correction as a leader, control the context of the communication as much as you possibly can. While this may take a little more time at first than writing a quick email, it will save countless hours of unraveling painful misunderstandings.

EMAIL WARNING THREE: Don’t allow replies to get past two

We’re all familiar with these email software functions: forward, reply, reply all, copy, and blind copy. And we know the well established protocols related to them.

Copy only those who need to be copied with an email. Never use blind copy, its deceptive. Only reply all when, truly, everyone on that list needs to be included in the conversation. Everyone. The same applies to forwarding. When it comes to hitting the reply button, however, there’s one more protocol to follow. Don’t do it more than two times in an email string.

I arrived one morning for a series of coaching sessions with the executive team at a client company. Before getting started on my day, the HR Director took me aside and showed me a printout of the email correspondence of two executive team members. The stack of paper was over ten pages long, single spaced. Reading from the back to the front, each ensuing email was longer and more intense than the one before it.

Warning One was ignored, as both leaders were writing under the influence of adrenaline. Warning Two was ignored as well, the printed pages were full of correction. But before this happened, if Warning Three was followed, Warning One and Warning Two would have never been an issue, or at least not as much of an issue as they had been here.

When you feel compelled to hit reply more than twice in an email string, it’s time to talk. Make a phone call, set an appointment, pop in to someone’s office, but don’t resolve the matter via email. It just won’t work.