Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The 7 best ways to use email

Email was dubbed the killer app in the '80s, but it might actually be killing communication in today's fast-paced business world. Of course email is usually an efficient way to handle basic communications such as coordinating meetings, sharing documents, and facilitating projects. Yet when used improperly email ruins productivity, creates confusion, and damages important business relationships.

Most management communications are best handled in person or over the phone. This allows all parties to take advantage of full realm of verbal and nonverbal in crafting and receiving messages. At a recent workshop on leadership, I asked the question about how many people felt they were managed by email. About two-thirds of the 25 people in the room raised their hands. The discussion that followed confirmed that this was not something that was working for those people.

It's time to face the facts: Email cannot accomplish 100 percent of our communication needs. Instead, recognize what email is designed to help you accomplish. Then optimize your use of that functionality in a way that complements your leadership initiatives, not executes them.

I've found there are seven ways to get the highest quality use out of email. If you start using email in this manner, you can see improvement in your overall ability to lead your team effectively, and communicate clearly, quickly, courteously, and authoritatively.

1. Set clear expectations and negotiate rules of engagement. We each have an email communication style and preference. Invest the time to sit down with your team and talk about what is working and what is not working. Do you expect your staff to verify that they received your message or do you assume the message was read and understood? Does your finance manager value an immediate response and analysis, or does she assume that your quick response couldn't be particularly well thought-out? Does your project manager write lengthy messages leading to a conclusion at the end of the page, or is he so concise that you're constantly looking for more? Is someone being left out because they are not as quick to respond to an email chain? Discussing and agreeing on clear expectations will help eliminate hidden but very important barriers to communication.

2. Give yourself time to think. Email often creates a false sense of urgency. You might feel like you have to send out an immediate response to everything that comes in, but that's not always the case. Instead, read each email and think about it before shooting off a reply that might otherwise be unclear or incomplete. If you need some more time to develop your thoughts, send a reply saying you'll respond to the request or question shortly, and then make sure you do so.

3. Know when to go voice. How many times have you thought that you should call someone, but write an email instead? This is a dangerous habit to fall into because important conversations do not always translate well through email and can lead to greater confusion in the long run. When you have an inkling that you should have a phone or in-person conversation, use that gut feeling as your guide and resist the urge to rely on email.

4. Remember there's a person on the receiving end -- and you don't always know who. It's easy to shoot off an angry email in the heat of the moment, but remember there is a business contact on the other end of that message. They are likely to react the same way to an angry email that you would. Equally important, realize the recipient can forward your email to any of his or her contacts. Get your emotions under control before writing an email, and consider who else could potentially read it. Being patient in frustrating situations and using pleasantries in your messages can go a long way in maintaining good business relationships.

5. Use email to confirm a discussion, not hold it. Email is a good way to summarize and confirm important in-person discussions. But do not hold such discussions over email. Meeting in person lets you communicate with all your nonverbal cues, which are essential for ensuring understanding and comprehension. Afterward, you can recap the discussion in an email, and have the recipient respond in confirmation and agreement. This maintains clarity about responsibilities and expectations, as well as documents your discussion in writing, which is necessary for certain management issues.

6. Don't hide behind email. Managers sometimes use email to take a hand's off approach to leading their teams. For instance, some managers try to use email to institute new policies, and assume their team members will adhere to and carry out the procedures. Others tend to use email to avoid confronting difficult or uncomfortable situations with their teams. These are counterproductive uses of email that will make the situation worse, not better. Important situations such as these require in-person meetings or conference calls. Again, however, the role email should play here is to confirm discussions as needed.

7. Think of the response you want before emailing. Identify the purpose of your email before composing it. Think of what you want to say, and what you want the recipient to do. Then formulate a concise email around those needs. Choose a subject line that signals to the recipients not only what the email is about, but what you might need. For example, if you need immediate feedback, make that part of the subject line. In the body of the email, start with the most important item to ensure it doesn't get buried by other text. If you need more than one thing, consider using numbers or bullets for emphasis. By being as clear as possible, you will save yourself from endless emailing back and forth making further clarifications.

Recognize what email is for, and what it is not. When you focus on using email for what it was designed to do, you can begin to optimize your communication and leadership abilities overall. What are your thoughts on these pointers? Any you'd add?