Monday, July 14, 2014

Email Pitfalls, Faux Pas and Blunders

To: You
CC: Your colleagues; your boss; your staff
Subject: Email Pitfalls, Faux Pas and Blunders

Every time we communicate with others we send a news flash about who we are.  Probably the most common form of business communication today is email. What messages are your emails sending?

In our coaching efforts, we have found that emails sometimes project an unintentional “tone,” creating a communication faux pas that rumbles long after the inbox was opened by the recipient. Below are examples of five of the more common pitfalls of email.

Pitfall One—The ALL CAPS Effect. Email is not for giving bad news or expressing anger… ever!
Take Lisa, a client I was coaching. She was itching to become a Senior Vice President at a large media company. The primary focus of her job was to work with her peers to drive a project near and dear to the CEO. After talking to the team and reviewing some of the emails Lisa had sent, I called her at home. My key message to her was to be careful about sending emails that might express her frustration with others. With email our tone and body language are separated from our words, and we don’t have the benefit of all our communication tools. For example, using ALL CAPS can come across as shouting. Email messages can get misunderstood or misinterpreted. When you give bad news or are frustrated, venting via email can be dangerous.

Pitfall Two—The Boomerang Effect. Email should not be used to market yourself at the expense of others.
Another client, Robert, wanted to be viewed as part of the senior team. A look at his written communication showed he was unnecessarily copying senior people on emails, which angered his peers and ultimately displayed his insecurities and poor teamsmanship. This can be a career staller versus starter. His political intent was obvious, therefore turning the action against him, similar to a boomerang. A boomerang is basically a propeller that isn’t attached to anything and is sensitive to the wind -- in this case the political winds.

Pitfall Three—Mind-Enhancing Lubrications and Communication Do Not Mix.
I coached an individual once who had developed a particularly acidic relationship with one of his key internal customers. It turns out that his daily habit was to hit a bar after work for a few “cold ones,” which in and of itself might not be a problem. The issue was the Blackberry. As the alcohol began to flow, his fingers would flow and type over keys that they might not have otherwise, sending negative emails to this peer. Anyone who has had dinner with a spouse over wine and brought up controversial subjects such as money or chores has learned this lesson the hard way—alcohol and conflict do not mix. At work (with technology this now means 24 hours a day), your career can be at stake.

Pitfall Four—The Arrow Effect. Send emails at times of day when people can respond to them.
It can be downright discouraging to staff members when they open their email accounts in the morning and find countless messages from their bosses, akin to being confronted by a barrage of arrows. For managers, the intent of sending emails should be to provide clarity and information—with the aim of increasing motivation and providing encouragement. Too often we use email to get something off our plate and onto someone else’s.

Pitfall Five—The Wrong Wheels for the Ride Effect. Pick the right vehicle.
When you pick up a friend who just spent hundreds of dollars getting her hair done, you don’t suggest you put the top down on your convertible. In the same vein, when sending a business message, we need to think about the best communication vehicle that won’t make the receiver’s hair stand on end. Jill, a recently promoted sales manager, felt that her new peers were not treating her as an equal—ignoring her and not inviting her to key meetings. We agreed she needed to meet with her peers, preparing carefully so as to prevent defensiveness right off the bat. When I spoke to her a few days later and asked, “Well, how did your meeting go?” she said she had sent an email requesting a meeting, and they hadn’t responded. I said, “But Jill, their offices are only two doors down from you.”

For communication that is complicated, controversial, or personal, in-person meetings are the best route to successful interactions. Not walking two doors down can give the impression that the subject matter isn’t very important. It might suggest that it is too much trouble -- that others aren’t worth the effort. None of those are messages she wanted to send.

So the next time you are about to use email, consider whether it is the best communication vehicle. If the message just contains facts, doesn’t need too much “tone,” is unlikely to be interpreted differently than its intent, or involves information that needs to get out to a lot of folks quickly, it may be exactly the right choice.

Next article—“Leveraging the Power of Email.”

Hilary Pearl and Laura Daley are executive coaches, consultants and workshop facilitators each with more than 20 years of practical business and consulting experience. They provide their clients with learning opportunities and tools to develop more cohesive, motivating work environments and improve the communication, managerial and interpersonal skills needed to drive the business. Their work is research based and takes into consideration the challenges of today’s challenging business environment.

We would love to hear your comments and insights! You can contact Hilary at or visit her website You can contact Laura at or visit her website