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Kelly Graves


Five Reasons Why Email Is Ruining Your Company

And five ways to improve communication

Published: Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 12:54

Three months ago I sat in a meeting with seven talented executives whom I’ve worked with on and off for five years. For the past two, there have been major undercurrents of friction between them during executive meetings. After attending a few of these, I noticed people were on their best “fake behavior” rather than having honest conversations about core problems such as miscommunication between departments, lack of accountability, and clear goals with precise timelines.

Even worse was the destructive finger-pointing that was happening between these capable people. The tension was high and had to be reduced, so I poked it with a stick and caused a meltdown by asking some point-blank questions. A lot happened in the ensuing two hours—from yelling and screaming to crying and honest dialogue.

I’ll provide the details in my next book, but for now I’ll focus on the core issue: poor communication. Let me rephrase that: The nucleus of the core issue was lazy and incompetent communication habits based on “theoretical efficiency and speed” rather than clarity and understanding.

In other words, leaders and managers didn’t prioritize significant topics and misused email to deal with them, or used email to replace face-to-face discussion.

Let’s start by summarizing the basics. A CEO’s main priorities are:
1. Stay abreast of economic, environmental, political, and industry data.
2. Focus on opportunities that will deliver the greatest long-term ROI.
3. Ensure that strategies are executed properly and on time, and make any necessary midcourse corrections as quickly as possible.
4. Actively monitor and enrich the performance and behaviors of direct reports.
5. Assume full responsibility for all actions taken within the organization.

Executives and higher-level managers’ roles are to:
1. Explain the organization’s strategy and how their departments directly support it by providing clarity for their teams and the individuals on them.
2. Take a broad organizational view that looks beyond their departments to ensure that cross-department collaboration is consistently refined and improved.
3. Take responsibility to ensure the goals, quality, quantity, and timeliness of products or services meet or exceed target expectations.
4. Take the necessary time to develop their direct reports so they consistently improve and, in turn, improve those below them.
5. Make the tough, appropriate decisions and stick to them, even if they’re resisted or unpopular.

Obviously, these lists are abbreviated versions of the hundreds of tasks and responsibilities executives and managers handle each day, but my point is this: Are these the types of topics business professionals want to discuss over a one-dimensional medium like email? It’s ludicrous, and the poor results of doing so—the bickering, mistakes, and duplicate work—reinforce my point that email is ruining your company.

There’s a time and place for email, but it needs to be used judiciously. Here are the top five email mistakes I observe in most organizations that contribute to poor performance and production, and that harm professional relationships.

The message sent was not the message received

The message and meaning the writer tries to share isn’t the message and meaning the reader receives and internalizes. Statistically, I’d venture to say that 60 percent of problems, friction, missed orders, missed opportunities, and deterioration of professional relationships is caused by misinterpreted emails. It’s simply not possible to express intonation, meaning, and a multitude of other factors when people aren’t face to face.

Many people don’t write well

Even when people have the time to compose an email, most aren’t good at getting their points across in a clear and concise way. Add in limited time and frustration because of other problems or the “fires” they’ve recently encountered, and the number of clear communicators drops significantly.

Many people don’t read the entire email

Many people don’t have time, or make the time, to read emails thoroughly. They glance at a few sentences, scan the rest, and assume they know what the sender is asking of them, or which orders need to be shipped out first. To make matters worse, those with higher-status positions often misinterpret what subordinates are asking and respond with a totally wrong answer, which puts employees in a difficult position. Should they guess, ask someone else, or risk being criticized for asking the same question twice? I run into this situation every week, so I know it’s happening in your organization, too.

Words alone don’t convey the meaning

In 1971 Albert Mehrabian revealed the findings of his study on communication, which most of us have read or heard about. They are:
• Words (i.e., their literal meaning) account for 7 percent of the overall message.
• Tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of the overall message
• Body language accounts for 55 percent of the overall message

There’s been a lot of debate since about the correct ratios in the statistics Mehrabian presented, but suffice to say communication requires more than spoken or written words.

Texts and instant messages complicate the issue

With ever-increasing speed, our organizations grow more complicated and geographically spread out, while our forms of communication are becoming more abbreviated and vague. People at all levels are relying increasingly on text, symbols, and abbreviated words, many of which must be decoded; the speed at which people invent creative slang, acronyms, and subwords is astounding.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pro technology but not at the expense of performance, production, and professional relationships. Miscommunications can all be easily corrected if good judgment is used. Here are some tips on how to be clearer in emails and increase your odds of ensuring that the message sent is the message that’s understood.


Help the recipient prioritize by assigning your email a level of importance. being by telling them whether it’s low, medium, or high priority. Of course, everyone in your organization must agree ahead of time on what these levels mean. For instance, low might mean “complete or respond this week,” medium might mean “complete or respond today,” and high might mean “drop what you’re doing and handle this, or call me, now.”

Clearly state your need up front

Do you need a decision about the email by 3 p.m. the same day? Then provide the information. For example, “A backhoe cut through the phone lines, and I need you to make the necessary calls while I fix things here onsite.” Or, “I need your input on these colors and graphics before Mary and I can continue with this ad. It’s due by 5 p.m. today.”

Confirm that the message is understood

I’m amazed at the sheer number of people and organizations that apparently don’t have time to confirm an email request and do it right the first time, but they do have time to make repeated attempts to resolve the issue. I’ve helped companies add 5 to 7 percent to their bottom lines just by teaching, coaching, and sometimes arm-wrestling them to simply confirm their communications. Improving in this one area can save literally millions of dollars in wasted time, scrap costs, and lost opportunities.

Provide options or supporting details

Think for a minute or so before you write out two or three options or supporting details about the issue. You’ve probably wrestled with this topic already and may have relevant information that could help. So include a couple of options or details, especially if you’re sending this email to your superior. CEOs and other executives are constantly looking for smart and capable people, and no organization has enough of them. You can separate yourself from the pack by developing this simple habit.

Consolidate the information into bullet points, or provide the top three options along with the pros and cons of each, and suggest your choice. You might not choose the same option as your superior, but she might go with it anyway to be supportive, acknowledge your decisiveness, or see how you will handle it. Don’t forget that every day amounts to a pop quiz: Prepare, show up, and prove your value to the organization.

So, a sample email that includes support or options might look something like this:
John: High priority. Mary and I need your input on colors for AMX ad due by 5 p.m. today. Options: Crimson, red, firebrick red, or dark red? Given the background of the picture, Mary and I suggest firebrick red. Your thoughts?

Kelly: Use firebrick red.

John. Confirmed. Firebrick red. We’ll have it completed by 3:30 p.m. today. I’ll send it to you for  the final OK. Thanks.

Join Kelly Graves and Dirk Dusharme for the professional development course, “Grow Profit Through Better Employee Management,” on Oct, 6, 2015, at 11 a.m. Pacific.


About The Author

Kelly Graves’s picture

Kelly Graves

Kelly Graves is the CEO of Internal Business Solutions, which exists to help organizations overcome their most daunting challenges. The Internal Business Solutions team understands that most, if not all, organizational problems—whether technical, financial, structural, etc.—hinge on improving human communication and processes. Contact Graves at Kelly@InternalBusinessSolutions.com or call (530) 321-5309. Click here to sign up for his free newsletter.