Did You Really Mean That? The benefits and perils of electronic communication

The complexity of intent through email and message

Jean Latting
Sparks Publication


Challenges in electronic communications

Electronic communication has become the default within organizations, whether it’s email, text, Slack, Teams, or other workplace messaging apps. The major advantages are well-known: they allow for flexibility in timing, and the same information can be sent to several people at once. That’s a huge advantage when dealing with people in different buildings or time zones. The disadvantage is that emails can be easily misunderstood, creating high emotionality, stress, and anxiety in the workplace1.

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Over the last few weeks, I have participated in or observed several breakdowns in communications because of misunderstood emails. In each instance, feelings were hurt, relationships were threatened, productivity slowed. The breakdowns are common enough that most people will recognize them. The challenge comes in figuring out how to change workplace cultures and habits so these breakdowns occur less frequently.

Three scenarios

Here are three examples. I chose them because they happen so frequently.

Scenario 1: Unnecessary escalation

Lucero is having a bad day. His manager is on his back for something that isn’t his fault. So when he dashes off an email to Malia, it is curt and abrupt. Malia is also having a bad day, feeling she wasn’t meeting specs on one of her projects. She really needs this job. So when she receives Lucero’s email with only two lines — “You didn’t do this right. Do it over” — she loses it. She welcomes real feedback, but not like this. Maybe he is being intentionally vague to sabotage her? she wonders. She responds with excessive politeness, asking Lucero to be more specific, and protects herself by sending a copy to her manager.

Lucero is now livid. Why is she involving her manager? He senses she is trying to get him in trouble, so he responds by pointing out one minor flaw in her work and copies both their managers on his response. Lucero and Malia are now in a cold war, solidifying the wedge between them, and annoying their managers, who wonder why they are being copied on such a trivial issue.

Scenario 2: What’s wrong with my answer?

Leading Consciously content editor Carole Marmell and I have been friends for over 30 years. We exchange a lot of short, blunt texts — and sometimes we misunderstand each other’s meaning. Here’s a sample:

Jean: Did you say you would miss our [regularly scheduled] call today am I remembering from another time?

Carole: No call, will be driving

Jean: Loui ok. That’s just say a simple OK

Carole: I’ve made an effort to change a lot of things per your guidance. I don’t see the need to change how I respond to a simple question. If you want me to speak up, please don’t zap me when I do.

Jean: When did I zap you? I don’t know what you mean….

Carole: Quick answer:
J: Do we have a call today?
C: No call, will be driving
J: just say ok

What was wrong about my answer?

Jean: There was nothing wrong with your answer. Autocorrect did some gibberish before I typed OK. I looked at the gibberish and typed “That should say a simple OK.” Autocorrect corrected what I said to “that just say simple OK.” I never said just say OK. I was just trying to correct the gibberish. It’s all a misunderstanding because of autocorrect.

Carole: That feels a lot better. I was so frustrated. Also I’m tired. On the road six hours now, 1.5 to go.

[See blog #80: Personal journal: How to ride your emotions as you change for the better.]

Scenario 3: Too long; didn’t read. Did you ask me to do something?

Clara sends one of her long, rambling emails to her coworkers. They usually roll their eyes, quickly scan her emails, and move on. In this case, though, she includes three important asks in different parts of the email. When no one responds, she feels angry and marginalized. As a new hire and one of the youngest of the team, she has hesitated to ask any of her peers for anything. This time, though, she needed their input on an important project. Their silence confirms her hunch that she is irrelevant — her requests are not worth their time.

Finally, she gets up the nerve to ask a teammate why he hadn’t responded. “I didn’t see any request in your email,” he explained. “But I did just skim it. It was long.”

(Mis)interpreting motives

Let’s first acknowledge that email (and its counterparts in messaging systems such as Slack and Teams) has too many advantages to go anywhere any time soon:

  • It allows for asynchronous conversation. Lucero and Malia don’t have to arrange a date and time for their conversation. Lucero can send the email on his schedule and Malia can respond five hours later.
  • It provides a written record of what has occurred. I could look at the text I had just sent Carole and try to figure out why she felt zapped.
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For a simple noncontroversial exchange of information, email’s advantages may outweigh its disadvantages. Efficiency wins out. On the other hand, studies have shown that organizations which rely extensively on email communication are likely to foster more cold and impersonal relationships among members.

To foster relationships, the connection must be personal and not just focused on the transmittal of information.2 When complex, ambiguous information must be exchanged, more personal forms of communication (phone, video, “in person”) may be preferable. Or, we should be on the alert for possible breakdowns and adjust our behavior accordingly. Here are three guidelines to consider:

Three guidelines

Guideline 1: Recognize the trade-off between trust and the appearance of power and control

In the first scenario, Malia and Lucero copy their managers without an inkling of how doing so might affect trust between them.

A major convenience of email correspondence is it allows for several people to be included on any exchange, thus promoting the appearance of transparency and openness. The downside, however, is that when higher ranking managers are copied on emails, someone is likely to interpret this as a sign of mistrust.3 In this case, Malia’s initiating the back and forth inclusion of managers implied she did not trust Lucero. Although her intention was to protect herself, Lucero reacted to what he perceived as mistrust, which is now dangerously close to defining their relationship.

How do we prevent this cycle of distrust? The most straightforward answer is to examine our motives when CCing anyone. Is there a chance the other person will interpret the CC in a negative light, such as a power play? If so, think about whether the risk to the relationship is worth it. Above all, avoid several rounds of “reply all” without checking carefully to be sure that everyone getting this second or third or fourth round really needs to read it.

In some organizations, I have seen a deliberate de-escalation of the appearance of a power play with a response like this:

Malia to Lucero: Now that both our managers are aware of the situation, let’s resolve it together with a phone call. I’m moving both managers to BCC so their email box is not cluttered and you and I can work this out on our own.

The two managers now see that Malia and Lucero are continuing on their own, and if Lucero hits reply all, the managers will not get a copy.

Guideline 2: Turn off your automatic negative assumptions and turn on curiosity

In the second scenario, Carole and I both misinterpreted what the other meant and felt. Autocorrect has created many sources of confusion in my relationships. I have even tried turning it off and it hasn’t gone anywhere. So the first lesson, then, is for me to figure out (again) how to turn off autocorrect since it is a known stressor for me and generator of confusion in my email exchanges.

The second and most major lesson for what happened with Carole and me is the importance of checking our assumptions. There are so many ways to misinterpret someone’s words or intentions in face-to-face interactions; these are multiplied when we are just looking at text with no nonverbal cues. Carole felt I was zapping her, and then decided to check that assumption by asking what was wrong with her answer. I was ready to get annoyed, but then got curious and looked at our text messages. I saw my response to her had become garbled. My emotional response switched from near-annoyance to curiosity to understanding.

Guideline 3: Assume responsibility for clarity

In the third scenario, Clara sends an unclear email with three requests embedded in a stream of consciousness.

More times than I can count, I have heard people lamenting that coworkers only respond to some of their email requests and then they have to repeat themselves. Repetition, particularly in the email, is an all-too-common way of fostering rework, one of the most frustrating time-wasters in an organization. Typically the structure of the email is the culprit.

Stream of consciousness emails are a recipe for misinterpretation — and to busy people, an irritation. The solution for Clara is straightforward. Take the time to make her emails more succinct, and at the bottom of an email, list a summary of all her requests. That way, the recipient can mentally tick off as they respond to the first request, then the second request, then the third request.

I learned this trick when I was teaching and giving essay exams. Compare these two sets of instructions:

Example 1: Name your favorite self-help book, the reasons you like it, and how the author might improve it in the next edition. Include a key concept that made a difference in your life.

Example 2:
Name your favorite self-help book
Explain why you like it
Describe how the author might improve it in the next edition
Describe a key concept that made a difference in your life

Which of the two examples is more likely to be answered completely? Your answer illustrates why a summary list of requests at the end of an email is more effective than leaving it up to the reader to pore over your email and try to find the separate phrases or sentences asking them to do something.

Just as my students responded more thoroughly when I put my questions in the form of the second example, so have I found is that my summary list at the end of emails gives people an easy way to respond. Most people simply hit reply, put my summary list at the top, and add their response underneath each item. I can’t overemphasize what a timesaver this has been.

Breaking dysfunctional email habits

It’s easy enough for me or anyone to describe email habits that work against fostering productive relationships in the workplace. It’s another thing for people or organizations to actually adopt these or other changes.

The list of common dysfunctional email habits that cause consternation in the workplace is long. In an editorial in Nursing Management, Editor Rosanne Raso listed what she called “the basics”:

You’ve probably learned the basic email lessons by now — don’t send anything when you’re angry, don’t send anything you wouldn’t want your bosses to see, don’t send anything you wouldn’t want as a newspaper headline. Email can be forwarded to the world in seconds, spreading like wildfire.4

The question is what to do if your organizational culture persistently engages in the three email offenses listed here. What I don’t recommend is sending an email asking people to change and assuming you have done anything effective.

Instead, recognize that changing the email culture of your organization can take up to a year. In a 12-month study, 5 researchers at the University of Sussex listed three ways for employers to support employees in making changes to foster better work email habits:

  1. Engage workers in developing a rational plan of action for the change and to state their intention to engage in it
  2. Train employees in self-efficacy so they can believe that such a change is possible
  3. Offer regular feedback on any improvements that can be noted
  4. Encourage all members to change at the same time so that the cultural shift affects all

In short, if the goal is to shift the culture, prepare to be deliberate about it, make sure the employees endorse the rationale, garner their commitment, and engage in regular feedback.

And if you as an individual are not prepared to shift the culture but do want to shift your own actions within the context of the culture, begin by accepting that people reading an email in a hurry to complete a task are not likely to give you grace or the benefit of the doubt.

Test it out: examine how often your task oriented emails end up backfiring, costing you more time than had you taken the time to preserve the relationship while sending the email. Recognize that task completion is much easier in an atmosphere of trust and congeniality than of distance and impersonality.

Last, remember these three guidelines:

  1. Recognize the trade-off between trust and the appearance of power and control. Bringing higher-ups into your conflicts with others may come at the sacrifice of a trusting relationship.
  2. Turn off your automatic negative assumptions and turn on curiosity. Your interpretation of another’s meaning may not be at all what is intended. Slow down and inquire.
  3. Assume responsibility for clarity. This is particularly so if you are the initiator of the email exchange on a topic. People often ask me who has the greater responsibility when one person misinterprets the other — the speaker or the listener. It is simply easier for the speaker to make an extra effort to clarify their meaning than it is for listener to somehow intuit a speaker’s meaning. It’s frustrating to do the best one can as a listener only to be told, “you’re not listening to me.”
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In each of these examples, the impersonality of email as a medium and absence of any cues about a sender’s emotional state sets up a situation ripe for potential conflict. What may appear to the sender as a succinct and time-saving statement may appear to the receiver as a brusque and judgmental emotional attack.

Take the time to make your email communications work. It will reduce your stress and anxiety in the long run.

1 Byron, Kristin (2008). Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email. The Academy of Management Review, vol 33 # 2, pp 309–327.

2 Smit, M.C., Bond-Barnard, T.J., Steyn, H. & Fabris-Rotelli, I., 2017. ‘Email communication in project management: A bane or a blessing?South African Journal of Information Management 19(1), a826

3 Schutter, L. D., McGuire, J., Yang, Y., Jian, X., & Alain, V. H. (2019). Transparency and control in email communication: The more the supervisor is put in cc the less trust is felt. Journal of Business Ethics,1–21.

4 Raso, R. Management by email… or mismanagement? Nurs Manage. 2021 Apr 1;52(4):5.

5 Russell, E., Daniels, K., Jackson, T.W. and Fullman, M. (2021). The work-habits intervention model: A 12-month study to change work-email habits. J Occup Organ Psychol, 94: 808–835.

Originally published at https://www.leadingconsciously.com.



Jean Latting
Sparks Publication

President, Leading Consciously| Diversity and Inclusion Consulting |Leadership Consulting| Online course: Pathfinders: Leadership for Racial and Social Justice