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E-mail style reflects personality

May 23, 2001

E-mail in the workplace provides a great opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we treat other people, according to Lynn Hamilton, who teaches management communication at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. "It can provide a real window into our relationships with co-workers and clients."

She suggested conducting a "personal e-mail audit" by going back through e-mail sent the past month and asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you indulge in gossip or criticize people behind their backs?
  • How often do you snub people by failing to reply?
  • Do you perpetuate road rage on the information highway, venting frustration behind the wheel of your e-mail engine
  • How often do you have to explain your e-mail tone or apologize for it?
  • Are you always talking about your needs and wants, your problems, your deadlines?
  • Are you curt and cold-sounding? Condescending?
  • How often do you express your understanding of a situation from someone else's point of view?
  • How often do you offer to help someone else?
  • How often do you thank someone? Congratulate someone?
  • How often do you pass on compliments or wish someone luck with a specific challenge he or she is facing?

"Looking at the actual words you've sent to other people can be a wake-up call," Hamilton said. "Many of us have sent messages we're not proud of."

She suggested the use of friendly words at the beginning or end of an e-mail to establish goodwill. "I'm not talking about offering obsequious, phony messages," she said. "I'm suggesting that people stop for five seconds to think of a gesture of goodwill they can sincerely offer another human being."

Goodwill statements involve being specific— going beyond the trite, "Have a nice day"-type of message.

Hamilton said many people are hungry, if not desperate, for small strokes and recognition at work.

"We've been talking for some time about operating in a 'high-tech, high-touch' environment. In many cases, the high-touch element seems to get lost. E-mail, when used thoughtfully, is a tool that can add a human, civilizing element to the workplace."

She suggested people think of an e-mail to a co-worker as an encounter in a hallway.

"In person, people almost always offer a sign of goodwill, even if it's just through nonverbal cues such as a smile or a nod or by raising their eyebrows in greeting. We lose those nonverbal cues in e-mail and need to use words instead."

Hamilton said she occasionally encounters managers who tell her they don't have time for such relationship-building gestures.

She doesn't buy this argument.

"It's a matter of priorities and mind-set," she said. "E-mail provides the fastest means we've ever had to quickly offer praise and other thoughtful messages to a large number of people. It can reduce friction and prevent the erosion of relationships. The real drain on time occurs when we have to repair communication problems after they've already occurred."

Copyright © 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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