Soft skills: 7 things leaders should never do in email

Before you respond to that heated email thread, here’s how to avoid potentially embarrassing or damaging email etiquette blunders
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soft skills email etiquette

It’s one of the bigger drawbacks of our always-on digital communication environment: The risk of firing off a missive that you’ll come to regret. Whether it’s including too many people in a reply, addressing sensitive or important issues better addressed in person, taking a tone that may be misunderstood, or even inadvertently exposing confidential information, the outbox can be dangerous territory.

“Time and again senior executives get caught in an email string of miscommunication, often with too many people on the distribution list.”

Email no-no’s are a common concern for business leaders, says Sarah Woods, Senior Vice President of Global Consulting at executive development and leadership consultancy Bates Communications. “Time and again senior executives we coach get caught in an email string of miscommunication, often with too many people on the distribution list creating unwanted exposure and consequences,” Woods says.

“Aside from wasting time and emotion on managing the back and forth, leaders take the risk that subordinates are spectators to unnecessary and often confusing conflict between peers or members of a leadership team, without context or a way to process the intent or backstory.” What’s worse, email misfires leave behind indelible digital paper trail that can easily be shared far and wide, thereby multiplying the damage beyond the original communication itself, she says.

7 reasons to pause before sending that email

The overarching lesson is this, according to Woods: “Remember the mic is always on.” IT leaders who want to limit email miscommunication, misunderstandings, and other missteps are wise to press pause before hitting send. Wood suggests rereading the message draft, considering things like the intent versus the possible reception as well as the recipients, and delete the email if: 

1. Your message contains feedback related to the performance of anyone – an employee, a colleague, service provider, or boss. “It doesn’t belong in an email,” Woods says. No exceptions. Meet in person instead or – if that’s not possible – via video conference or phone.

2. The information included could impact roles or work assignments that have not already been made clear privately. Think about the individuals involved: Consider how such an email might make those employees feel if you have not spoken to them directly about the changes and without additional context. “This type of information sets off alarm bells regarding status, job security, and compensation,” Woods says. “Have one-on-one, live conversations with those impacted before organizational announcements go out.”

3. You notice there are already misunderstandings in the email string. That’s a red flag that tensions are likely already escalating among recipients. “Chances are you’ll make it worse if you reply,” advises Woods. “Take it offline and clear it up with a face-to-face conversation.”

4. You find that you have typed out emotional opinions, sarcastic jokes, off-color comments or potentially incendiary language. Even if you think the recipient will understand or appreciate it, never hit send. “It will inevitably backfire,” says Woods. “Don’t risk it, even if you think you have a forgiving audience.”

5. You’re adding a cc: to the email. In this case, no need to delete the message entirely. But generally speaking it’s best to establish a practice of not copying people on emails unless it’s absolutely necessary, says Woods. Leaders should encourage others to cc: less as well, she adds.

6. The message contains confidential, proprietary, or private company or individual information or data. Once the email is sent, the information will be none of those things, Woods says.

7. You’re writing late-night replies as you clean out your inbox. Your intentions may be good: doing a little digital housekeeping while you have a free moment. But don’t do it, she advises. “Chances are you’re tired (or jetlagged) and your nerves are worn thin,” Woods says. “Save a draft and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning.”

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.


Excellent advice - nice article!