One of the high potential areas for unproductive conflict on your team can be found in the use of email. 

Let’s start with what everyone already knows.  A large percentage of communication is made up of vocal and physical behavior; in other words, tone of voice and body language (studies vary on this subject and there is some controversy, so let’s leave it at “very large” and not mess with numbers).  On the phone, you’re missing the physical part; over email, you’re missing both the physical and the vocal.  So it’s important, in any type of communication, to pick the right medium.  Do emotions run high over this particular subject?  Is someone likely to be angry, frustrated or resentful?  Meet in person then.  That’s too much emotion to be correctly interpreted through purely verbal communication.

Experts say that humor and sarcasm are the two emotions most frequently misunderstood over email.  You can almost guarantee that the recipient of your email won’t read it the way you intended. 

But with lack of vocal tone, even verbal communication (the actual words you choose) can be misunderstood.  I heard a great example recently.  One woman emailed another and said, “I owe you big girl”, referring to a favor the woman had done her.  What she meant was, “I owe you big.”  What the recipient heard was that she was fat.  Since she happened to be a rather large woman, this was unfortunate.

Then there’s the issue of some people being email people and some people not.   Some folks aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in writing, or find email very impersonal, or hate to type, or are slow at it. It’s important to get to know this about your teammates.  Who is comfortable with email and who isn’t?  Who prefers the phone?  Who prefers a face-to-face meeting?  Figure this out about each other, because the next time you’ve got a touchy subject to bring up with your teammate and you’re the one who stands to lose something, you don’t want to pick a communication medium that will make matters worse. 

Then there’s the teammate who’s uncomfortable with confrontation and finds it easier to express frustration and anger over email than in person.  Not only does this teammate let loose and say hurtful things she might not normally say in person, but there’s more potential for the emotion to be misinterpreted over email.

And then there are the conventions about follow-up and response.  When someone sends an email that is meant to be purely informational, do you acknowledge it?  Or just read and delete it, in the interest of not cluttering someone’s in-box with an email that just says “thanks”?  When it is a request for response and you can’t respond right away, do you say so?  Or wait until you have the information to respond completely?  And who gets copied on what kinds of emails?  Organizational culture often dictates these sort of things, and differences in the way they are handled can cause great resentment between team members due to differing perceptions of what constitutes respectful and disrespectful behavior.   

As you’re working on your team norms, here are some points to consider regarding email:

1. Spell out criteria that will help teammates decide the most appropriate communication medium for a particular situation (email vs. phone vs. informal meeting vs. formal meeting) and include examples.  What kinds of topics are so important that a formal meeting should be scheduled?  What kinds of topics need the efficiency of email, and the ability to copy multiple people?  What kinds of topics may lead to a long back-and-forth over email that is time-comsuming and unproductive, and would be better handled by a phone call?

2. Spell out some norms about responding to emails.  Who gets copied on what?  Do all emails get acknowledged, or do we have a norm that says “lack of response indicates assent”?

3.  What constitutes inappropriate use of email? (e.g. blasting each other in frustration, tattling to the boss, and the obvious stuff like inappropriate/offensive/obscene humor.)

4.  What are teammate’s specific individual communication preferences?

5.  What are some response time guidelines, especially for external or customer emails?  How long should it take us to respond to a request via email?

What do you have to add?  What are your pet peeves about the use of email on your team, and what kinds of norms do you have (or should you have) to address them?

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