You know a flaming email when you see it. Sarcasm, anger, or a belittling tone seep through the screen. It’s astounding how much tone we read into an email. It’s easier than you might think to send a flaming email. In fact, most executives that I work with don’t realize that they are guilty and that they have created devastation from the keyboard. Let’s look at how you guard against being that person who sends the flaming email.
Consider Your Brand. We all read between the lines and project our interpretation into the email. We all make assumptions about the tone based on what we know about the sender. Your personal brand greatly influences how your email is received. Before you hit “send” consider the perception the receiver has of you. Don’t expect the receiver to “hear” support or wit if they are accustomed to sarcasm. Will the receiver be inclined to hear anger because you have been angry with them in the past (or belittling)? If so, choose words carefully with their inclination in mind. Recognize your brand and over-communicate your message particularly if it is counter to the last communication you had with them). For example, perhaps yesterday you had a team meeting where you had to be overly directive and stern. Today, the team got the message and corrected the problem. You want to recognize their action. As you write that email, keep in mind that they will be on edge when they read it. They will be hyper-sensitive to a perceived tone that echoes yesterday’s meeting. If you now wish to applaud their work, start by acknowledging that you had a difficult and direct meeting yesterday. You can say, “Yesterday we had a direct discussion about my concerns for the project. Today, however, I am happy to note the new direction you have taken. Congratulations.” In this example, you acknowledged the previous tone and specifically named the new emotion (happy). Naming your emotion greatly reduces the chance for misreading the words that follow.
Appropriateness for email. The single biggest problem I see with flaming emails is that they are conveying information not appropriate for email. Email is simply not the format for sensitive topics. This includes interpersonal relationship issues (disagreement between employees), sensitive issues (project, program or staffing), unwelcome information (personnel action, unacceptable work), or topics with delicate nuance. Email doesn’t work for subtle, sensitive topics. Email is a blunt force instrument best suited for simple communication (unless you are that rare person with both the time and talent to compose beautiful prose). If there is something difficult to say, walk around the corner to talk face-to-face or pick up the phone.
Emphasis. There are various ways to create emphasis in email such as bold, italics or underline. Emphasis is helpful in email to aid the reader in focusing on key points, action items or due dates, for example. However, a red flag should go off in your head if you find yourself using emphasis to highlight emotion. “This is unacceptable.” “I don’t want to discuss this again.” ”Really?” I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will: there’s no need to YELL in email.
In the flaming emails that I’ve seen, the sender didn’t realize that the email was aflame when they sent it. To prevent the scorched earth that comes from a flaming email, consider your brand, the appropriateness of the subject matter for email and information you choose to emphasize. And you won’t be that person.