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The 5 Worst Email Mistakes and the 5 Best Ways to Avoid Them

Email mistakes don’t have to haunt you with this set of 5 do’s and don’ts.

Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

How many times have you regretted an email that you sent in haste, anger, or ignorance? Have you ever hit “reply all” accidentally, leaving your inadvertent recipients seething? Some email sins can also be errors of omission, not commission, such as when you fail to reply to an important message, and someone is left feeling ignored, insulted, or betrayed, or assuming you just don’t care enough to bother to reply.

New research on email patterns shows just how significant those omissions can be.

MIT’s Peter Gloor and colleagues (2017) sought to determine whether they could predict which corporate managers would voluntarily leave their companies by examining their patterns of email-related behaviors. Specifically, the researchers were interested in learning whether managers who had mentally checked out prior to their voluntary resignation from the firm were less responsive to email requests from other employees, and if, when they did respond, they expressed more emotionality. Although the purpose of the study was to examine what organizational psychologists call job “embeddedness,” or one's emotional connection to work, the findings also provide insight into why one of the most inviolate rules of good email use is to respond to others in a timely fashion.

To test the theory that job disengagement relates to email behavior, Gloor et al. examined the emails of 866 employees randomly selected from a possible group of 1,566, all of whom worked for a large international corporation. The findings showed that managers who left, compared to those who stayed, were less plugged in to their firms' email networks. Being emotionally connected to coworkers could, the authors wrote, “translate into friendships and acquaintances ties which may serve to buffer the stress and tedium of everyday work” (p. 350). When you lack such connections, not only may you feel less attached to your job, but you can also become disengaged from the all-important social network within the company.

Your emails, then, reflect the quality of your relationships with the people in your social network, even if those people are co-workers. When you won’t respond to emails, or when you react in an excessively emotional way, you’re communicating to others the impression that you’re seeking to end your relationships with them. From the findings of the MIT team, we gain important insight into how to use, and abuse, email.

Following are 5 do's — and 5 don'ts — to help you remain a successful emailer within your own networks:

The 5 Don’ts:

1. Don't fail to respond: Ignoring an email for a prolonged period of time signals that you just don’t consider the recipient all that important. Lack of response is a sin of omission which can weigh just as heavily as some of the following sins of commission.

2. Don't end a relationship: Breaking up over email isn’t just cowardly — it’s also hurtful and insensitive. Whether you’re leaving a company or a romance, it’s best to communicate with the individual face-to-face, or at least via a phone call.

3. Don't complain argumentatively: It’s all too easy to use email to unload onto a recipient the anger and irritation you feel about something he or she has done. After all, the recipient isn’t there in person to offer a defense. But that angry complaint is likely to backfire at a later point.

4. Don't send without checking: Impulsively written emails, such as those highly emotional ones studied by the MIT team, can contain not only overly emotive language, but may even go to the wrong recipient. Firing off an email without checking can also make you appear careless and sloppy, as you’re more likely to fail to spell-check or confirm to whom it’s going.

5. Don't put into writing words that can become the basis for a grievance: There’s a reason that some people put at the bottom of their email the warning that email is not a secure or confidential form of communication. If your recipient in a work setting later wants to show that you interfered with his or her promotion or hiring, your email can stand as evidence in a way that oral communication cannot.

The 5 Do’s:

1. Do maintain a positive, or at least neutral, tone: When people end their emails with the sign off of “Cheers,” or “Best,” it’s because they wish to appear pleasant. Even if you have to say something critical in an email, you can do so without appearing vindictive or spiteful.

2. Do use a word processing program to draft a long email: If you are a sloppy proofreader, no matter how hard you try not to be, it’s good practice to write the email as a document that you can spell-check. This approach will also slow you down, keeping you from sending off an impulsive message that could haunt you later.

3. Do be specific about any instructions or plans to meet the recipient: Emails that are vague about important details can prove highly frustrating. Don’t assume automatically that an acquaintance whom you’re inviting to your home for the first time knows your address. Also, be specific about time and date to avoid someone mistakenly coming too early or too late, or on the wrong day altogether.

4. Do offer a compliment and/or a thank-you: Let the people in your network know that you appreciate what they’re doing. The opposite of a complaint, a compliment or a thank-you reinforces the perception that you care about those you work with or the people in your broader social network.

5. Do take advantage of email’s potential to let you connect: Unlike the days when you actually had to compose and then mail a physical letter, email makes it extremely easy to reach out to people you haven’t seen in a while, or even in decades. Take out that old contact list and see who you’ve fallen out of touch with. A cheery hello will brighten their day, and yours.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

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Gloor, P. A., Fronzetti Colladon, A., Grippa, F., & Giacomelli, G. (2017). Forecasting managerial turnover through e-mail based social network analysis. Computers In Human Behavior, 71343-352. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.02.017

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