When I was young, there was a series on British television called ‘Danger
UXB’. Week by week it followed an army bomb disposal squad as they rushed
from one assignment to the next, averting disaster and saving the day. It
had danger, suspense, strong characters, tight deadlines – all the elements
of good TV.
In the work environment, however, these same characteristics are somewhat
less desirable. How often do we find ourselves going from one close call to
the next, defusing time bombs and booby traps left for us by others – or
worse still ourselves?
Email has transformed the workplace; communication is now so easy that it
would be impossible to estimate how many hours have been saved since email
became widespread; it is so easy to write and send a quick email that we do
it automatically, often without thinking.
And yet this very simplicity and ease of use makes it an extremely
dangerous tool. In this post I want to look at some tips on how to minimize the
risk of setting up an email time bomb and avoid some of those near
So, before you hit ‘Send’, stop and ask yourself:
- Would I be happy for what I have written to become public knowledge? Remember, emails can be forwarded and reforwarded to thousands of people. You have no control over who sees the content
- What am I feeling, and has this affected what I have written? It is too easy to be swept away by the emotions of the moment. Never click ‘send’ while you’re in a state of high emotion
- What assumptions have I made about the recipient/the situation? Are you responding to demonstrable facts? Or to what you think is going on? Are you trying to mindread what other people are thinking?
- How is the recipient likely to react to this email? Put yourself in their shoes, and imagine opening the email for the first time, without knowing what the writer (you) knows. What would you make of it? How does the tone come across? If the email is about a delicate – or potentially delicate – situation, it can be useful to run a draft past someone who is not directly involved
- Would I be just as happy to say this to their face rather than by email? One of the worst aspects of email is what I refer to as eCowardice; in other words, we say nothign while we’re face-to-face with someone, or worse we agree with them, then we skulk off to our office and write an email with all the things we should have said in the meeting
- Is email the best way to send my message, or would it be better by
‘phone or face-to-face? Despite the opportunity to reply and cc and everything else, email does not encourage debate in the same way that a conversation does. Ideas are filtered before they reach the screen, and there is often a sense of ‘finality’ about something that has been written down. Email is good for keeping an audit trail of who said what, not for brainstorming
- Who have I Cc’ed (or BCc’ed)?
Why? Are the CCs and BCCs people who need to be informed? Or am I covering my rear?
- Could anyone misinterpret any of what I have written? Research suggests that words account for only 8% of communication. the other elements – tone and body language – are totally absent from email, so it becomes very easy for something to be taken the wrong way or out of context
- Would I still be happy to send this in 24 hours’ time? It’s not unknown for me to write an email then store it in draft and keep coming back to it over the course of a day. That’s not necessary for every email, but do check with yourself before clicking send
If you can, give yourself a cooling-off period. Go and have a coffee away
from your desk, then come back to the mail with fresh eyes. If you are
replying to or forwarding a message from someone else, then resist the urge
to re-read the original mail until after you have checked your own.
Email is a great tool. Like all tools, the real skill lies in knowing how
to use it properly.