Opening Reflections

Take a Moment:

  • Consider how much time you take handling emails.
  • Pick a small selection of email conversations and consider if the time spent was effective and how you could have handled those conversations more effectively.
  • What time savings could you have made?


Considering Emails

Emails have a depressing ability to consume so much time driving our work activities that we only get on to the day job when everyone else has gone home! Such a situation works against a team being highly effective. Therefore, it is crucial that we work out a responsible communication strategy for emails.

The secret is to understand when using emails is helpful and when they hinder. If we can get our heads around this, even if no one else does, we can make a difference to our individual and team effectiveness.

You will recall in Leading Teams with a Servant Heart we saw that highly effective teams establish effective processes for how they work. If we can do this regarding emails for our team, even if everyone outside works differently we can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of our team.

The Value of Emails

What are emails good for?

Emails are excellent when information needs to be elicited or passed to another person or a group. However, a considerable amount of communication is about dialogue, and that is not easy with email.

What are emails useless for?

Email is very very difficult to use effectively where the content impinges on someone’s emotions and that happens so easily, even when it’s the last thing on the sender’s mind. The unintended misunderstanding or slur rapidly explodes and the situation escalates. One reason for this is that, emoticon’s aside, convey none of the tonal or visual clues that help us interpret what is said.

Remember that even in so called verbal communications only 7% -10% of the meaning is conveyed by the words.  The rest is communicated by tone of voice, inflection, expression and posture. So what chance does email have?

Email is also poor when any matter of even modest complexity needs to be resolved quickly. They normally generate long strings of time consuming emails in attempts to clarify the situation.

What other means of communication can we use?

Email has tended to become the default organisational/business communications mechanism and that is where the problem lies. It used to be much cheaper than phone calls and it also offers an asynchronism which is attractive. In other words we don’t have to wait for the other person to be available, and that gives the illusion of efficiency.

The main alternative that is available to us is to use our voice. If we cannot go and speak to our correspondent face to face (and how many emails are sent across even small offices?) we can benefit from free phone calls via services like Skype. Even better, to get more help from communications markers we can benefit from inexpensive video calls too. We desperately need to become intelligent about the use of email; to ask ourselves “How best can I communicate in this situation?”

Email and 12 Major Communication Roles

But first:

Take a Moment

  • List as many of the various purposes for which we use communications that you can think of.
  • Now give each a score between 1 and 10 to represent how effective email is for that purpose (1 is completely ineffective and 10 is perfectly effective)
  • What conclusions can you draw?


Let’s explore this some more as we look at 12 communications roles and consider the effectiveness of email.

Transferring information

Email is excellent for this, assuming that we are good at composing them. It allows information to be set down and communicated in a clear and resilient manner; resilient because the email can be kept and the information retrieved at will.

Discussions, dialogue and debate

Emails are really poor at this because anything that has even the slightest complexity stimulates questions and generates misunderstanding and lack of clarity. This results in “Email ping-pong” as ideas, questions and clarifications bounce back and forth.

For most people these kinds of emails take lots of time to write and get right. All of that is before you involve more than one other person. Then you end up with multiple divergent conversations. Chaos! The best solution is to talk with your fellow participants. Best of all is to do it face-to-face in a meeting but even a phone or Skype conference call is far superior to using email.


Emails are terrific for documenting discussions; not holding them but documenting the outcome or the agreement. Follow up the verbal discussion with an email setting out the conclusion.

Serious negotiation

Email is just not the tool for conducting negotiation. Negotiation is a particular kind of discussion. For it to be successful you need as many of communication markers as you can possibly get; remember the missing 93% of the communication. Email’s role is documentation. In this case it may be used at key points in the negotiation to capture the agreement on the points discussed so far.

Simple negotiations

Email is usable for the simplest negotiations such as agreeing a time or a place to meet. This is barely more than the exchange of information and would normally only require a couple of rounds of email.

Problem solving

Email has a role to play in problem solving but it’s not as the main tool. Problem solving is a complex form of dialogue or negotiation, often with several people involved. In this case Email’s best role is one of documentation. The best communications approach to problem solving is verbal discussion, ideally in a meeting. That may not always be possible so phone calls and phone/Skype voice or video conferences are useful mechanisms. Where problem solving requires several conversations over a period, using emails in their information transfer mode to share new ideas between meetings can also be very useful.

Stimulating and sharing ideas

Email can be useful for this provided the temptation to debate is resisted. The request for ideas and the ideas returned are really about the transfer of information. Moving beyond the collection of ideas into the development of solutions is effectively problem solving for which Email is a poor tool.

Developing plans

This is a combination of problem solving and negotiation for which Email is not best suited at all except in its documentation role.

Sharing plans

This is the transfer of information for which email is excellent.

Resolving conflicts

Conflict resolution is normally an emotionally charged negotiation and all the communication markers emerging from tone, inflection, expression and posture are vital. This can really only be done in person, face-to-face. We may fight shy of doing this out of fear and apprehension, but they are not good reasons to resort to Email. Most times Email will only exacerbate the situation. If the issue is not emotionally charged then a phone or Skype call works, perhaps followed by an Email to document the outcome.

Personal/emotional counselling

Email has no real role here apart from perhaps being a stop-gap or emergency last resort. Counselling, especially therapeutic counselling, needs face-to-face time because a relationship of trust needs to be built and the missing 93% of the communication process is required.  In support of face-to-face meetings phone/Skype and video calls can work really well, especially where geographical separation makes regular face-to-face meetings difficult.


Coaching is similar to counselling in many ways and the main work is best done face-to-face (see The Effective Practices of the Servant Leader) and email serves well in its documentation role. However, coaching is about a medium to long term relationship and email may be useful in some of its roles as a supplementary communication mechanism between meetings, especially if the coach and coachee are separated geographically. However, scheduled (or ad hoc when necessary) phone/Skype or video calls are preferable to total reliance upon email.

Developing a Responsible Emailing Strategy for your Team

A problem with email is exactly how can one take responsibility for ensuring that communication has been achieved.

  • How can you ensure that the recipient has properly understood what you intended to communicate?
  • How can you be sure that you have understood exactly what the originator wanted you to understand?


One approach is to reflect upon our considerations and only use email for those tasks for which it is effective. Even then, additional, situation specific mechanisms are required to confirm understanding has been achieved. Perhaps the best approach is to keep messages simple and confirm understanding with a phone call.

One problem with emailing is that there is a tendency for the sender to feel that their responsibility has been fulfilled when they press the send button. However, even if the message has been perfectly conveyed in the text, we must remember that email is not a mechanism that guarantees delivery to the recipients. Nor does it guarantee that understanding is achieved and remembered. It is susceptible to transmission failures, spam-filters and overfull inboxes, overwork and bad timing for the recipient.

We saw that one of the steps necessary in helping a team, and its individual members, work collaboratively is to collectively workout the ground rules for the team processes. This applies to all means of communication as much as anything else. The best way to do this is to call the team members together to a workshop in which they can collectively develop their ground rules for Responsible Communications, including those for email.


Take a Moment:

  • Do you or your team use other communications mechanisms such as collaboration aids or social media, for example Twitter and Facebook or their equivalents?
    • Review how each mechanism is used and the degree to which they are effective.
    • Identify the communications roles for which they are used.
    • On a scale of 1-10 assess how effective they are in each role.
    • Based on this assessment determine when and how they can be best used.