Why emails cause conflict

And what you can do about it.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 26 May 2020

If email didn’t have any upsides, there wouldn’t be 300 billion of the things sent every day. Indeed our ability to operate at home during the lockdown would be difficult without Zoom, as many have pointed out, but it would be next to impossible without email. 

There’s no escaping the downsides, however. An overactive inbox can be an astonishing drain on productivity, if you fall victim to the illusion that clearing emails counts as real work. And, particularly in the remote working age, email can be the source of much unnecessary conflict within teams. 

In a 2015 study by Education First, 70 per cent of multinational directors reported conflict among remote teams, which 49 per cent of them confusion over email communications to be a major source.

There are simple reasons why it so often goes awry. 

The written word lacks the “richness” present in other forms of communication, says Penny Pullan, author of Virtual Leadership. “When we write, our communication is ‘less nuanced’ meaning that what we say can be easily misinterpreted.” 

(One imagines Jane Austen might disagree, but she hasn’t seen some of the emails we get - ed.)

A person’s posture, tone of voice and facial expressions - all important cues in face-to-face communication - are missing from written messages, meaning it is harder to judge the tone or emotion in the conversation. Stylistic devices like an exclamation mark or capital letters may be intended to convey emphasis, for example, but could also be construed easily as angry.

This can be exacerbated by what Vanderbilt University’s Raymond Friedman and Rice University’s Steve Currall termed in a 2002 study the “low feedback” nature of emails - in that the sender often has little idea how the receiver could be reacting and therefore does little to correct it. 

“People say and do things on email that they wouldn’t say face-to-face,” Cary Cooper, professor of organisational health and psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School, told Management Today. 

So for example, you might have critical feedback on some important work a member of your team has delivered. In person, you’re more likely to be sensitive to how they receive that feedback in order that it will be constructive. On email, you might rattle it off in ten seconds, thinking it’s clear and forthright, but instead end up damaging their confidence, or rubbing them up the wrong way.

It’s easy to see how conflict can ensue.

What can you do about it?

The most important thing is to try to be clear in what you say and to think about how your writing could be interpreted, says Pullan.  

“Know your audience. Think about what you are trying to achieve and what they might want from it.”

One idea to avoid confusion is to finish each email asking people what questions they have. Pullan emphasises that this is better than asking if there are any questions because it encourages people to think more deeply about the information they have been given.

Setting ground rules over the type and nature of group communication could also help to avoid conflict, as David Liddle, CEO of conflict resolution company TCM, argues in this piece for Management Today.

Pause before sending. If you think your message might affect how someone feels - about you, about themselves, about their colleagues or about their work - ask yourself if this what you’ve said might have any unintended consequences, or whether it’s a message that really should be delivered by email. 

You can adapt the tone of your written messages to cater for different situations, but ultimately there are certain occasions where it's just better to pick up the phone. 

Image credit: Photofusion/Universal Images Group/Getty Images


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