I know you think you know how to write a good email, but I’d like to take a moment to tell you the correct way to write an email. How did that sentence make you feel? Kinda like I was talking to you like you’re a three year old, right? That’s how easily an email can offend people.
If you want to come across in a positive way — as a team player, a competent leader or a trusted friend — the words you choose and the way you string them together has a tremendous impact. This matters even more so in email, because unlike phone or video chat, you can’t see the person’s face. You can’t see the smirk as they deliver sarcasm, or the crease in their forehead because something you’ve just said confuses them. Some people think this is why technology like email and social networks are hurting society.
With email, you’re pretty much flying blind. For some people, that kind of works well because they’re the kind of people that like talking at people, rather than to people. If you’ve worked in any environment where email is a heavily used form of communication, then you very likely know that there are so many different “email personalities” that turn up. There’s the patronizer, the hate-bating troll, the chronically off-topic, Mr. (or Mrs.) negativity…the list goes on and on.
So how do you know whether you’re coming across the wrong way without realizing it? What sort of rules can you follow to always make sure you come across as a kind, open-minded, cooperative person who people really enjoy working with? The following tips should give you a head start toward friendlier and more productive email communications.
The Line Between Confidence and Arrogance
Many times, the people who come across as arrogant in an email don’t even realize how they come across. A lot of times, they’re just trying to impress someone or gain the respect of their colleagues or friends. Of all the email errors people make — especially at work — this is the big one. So many are trying to impress the boss that many times it becomes an ongoing game of one-upmanship between colleagues. Everyone wants that promotion, and often the only view of performance that a manager sees is what’s reported in the emails. At least, that’s the thought process.
The problem starts when you see the word “I” a lot. “I want us to start doing this immediately”, or “I want to be clear here…”
The phrases aren’t only self-centered. They also turn into a dictatorial conversation. It’s almost like a parent-child relationship where one person thinks they’re going to dictate all the rules, and you’re supposed to just shut up and listen.
No one likes being on the receiving end of that, and trust me, you don’t want to be on the delivering end either. No one will like you.
Carmine Gallo, a skills coach consultant and author, wrote that arrogant people tend to avoid eye contact. They seem to almost talk through you, and not at you. It’s because they don’t really care who they’re talking to, only that what they have to say gets heard. This also comes across in email through the constant use of “I”, with little attention paid to what others say, other than the occasional superficial comments about “appreciating” your input. You can bet that the manager won’t read what you write, but will be busy trying to come up with what they want to say next.
No One Needs You To “Step In”, Big Guy.
Another hint that you have a self-inflated ego on your hands is when you’re in the middle of an email conversation, which includes a CC list of several people, and then out of the blue someone joins the conversation with the phrase, “Allow me to step in here for a moment…”
Here’s what that type of wording, similar to a “Let me clarify…” does to the people reading your email. It tells them that you think you have all the answers. It tells them that you feel they’ve been misguided and incorrect up to this point, and here you are — the hero in shining armor on a white horse — riding in to save everyone from their own stupidity and ignorance.
Great job Mr. Hero – you’ve just alienated everyone in the team with the very first words of your email.
Here are some of the most powerful tips for polite but professional communication.
Be Honest and Humble
The mark of a true leader is one who not only acknowledges that he or she doesn’t have all of the answers, but further states — often and emphatically — that the employees are the ones with the greatest insights and skills. The best way to do this in email is to CC your employee when you’re emailing your superiors about them and speaking well of them. Do the same when you’re talking to other members of the team — speak well of your employees. Acknowledge when they’ve had a major success.
It can be counter-intuitive for people who enter into a management position to not build themselves up. After all, the position is one of authority and lends itself to self-boasting. Most managers feel that for the respect of employees, they need to appear intellectually superior. Unfortunately, in most cases this does the opposite.
It seems odd as a manager to be asking your employees for answers rather than giving them the answers, but believe it or not when you empower people to develop solutions for you, it also makes them respect you. Once they accomplish the task of finding an answer to a problem, they’ll not only feel more confident about themselves, but they’ll also remember that you were the one who inspired them to step up and gain that success. That’s the secret to management – focusing on the success of the individuals under you, rather than focusing on your own.
Think about it — you are in a unique position to build a team of confident, successful people who are working for you. Just imagine how much more a team like that could accomplish than a team that’s filled with people who are disgruntled and unmotivated.
But…Don’t Use “But”
Another funny tactic that I’ve seen show up in manager-emails during my various travels is the whole bait-and-switch routine. This is where the manager starts out the email with a compliment, and then does a switch-up to complain about something, or to ask for additional work. This is particularly harmful, because it gives the false impression that you’re about to be honest and humble (as recommended above), and you build up the employee’s expectations that they are about to receive a compliment, and then you just destroy it by doing the exact opposite.
These are phrases like, “You guys are doing great, but…”, or “I like what you did with that diagram, but…”
This is actually the bastard child of the age-old advice provided to managers that they should always start off an email asking for something or critiquing something with something positive to “soften the blow”. Don’t get me wrong, done sincerely, this actually works. The problem is that most people don’t know how to do this sincerely, and instead just come across as a condescending, pompous ass.
Unless you sincerely feel that someone is doing a good job — just bypass the empty platitudes and get down to business. Your employee will appreciate being treated like an adult rather than like a 5 year old.
Show People You Care What They Say
If you want your employees or coworkers to appreciate you and feel that you’re an authentic person, it’s important that you be honest and straightforward with people. Being happy is great, but being positive just for the sake of being positive comes across as very empty and patronizing via email. If you have to use the “say something positive first” approach when delivering bad news, do it authentically. Don’t just say “you’re an awesome employee”, but instead mention something they’ve specifically done that shows that. This tells them that you actually pay attention — you care what they do and what they say.
Managing people is probably one of the hardest jobs out there, because it’s human nature to distrust and dislike authority. When you’re in a position of authority, it makes it that much more necessary to be humble, authentic, and honest.
It isn’t enough to say you care about people. Show it.
It isn’t important enough to say you appreciate someone. Describe why.
With email, people are going to make all sorts of assumptions about what you say — so don’t leave any room for misinterpretation. People will appreciate your frankness and honesty — not just your employees but also your colleagues. If you pull this off well, some day you will find yourself on the receiving end of a “distinguished leader” award.
How do you try to communicate well with email? What sort of approach do you take to make sure you don’t offend or patronize people? Share your own tips in the comments section below!