Lost in Translation: The Problem with Email

Journalist and Author
Management expert Adam Bryant on the trouble with email.
  • Transcript


Adam Bryant: The crazy thing about email is that it was really invented as a productivity tool obviously and it's good for a lot of things. It's kind of shrunk the world a little bit. You can communicate with people halfway around the world. But it's actually a really bad communication tool. And the basic problem is that you can't read tone or body language in emails so things get lost in translation. And to me that's really the key phrase. You send someone an email that strikes you as incredibly simple and clear, something like saying the sky is blue, the ocean is deep, but then you get this email back from the person that suggests they completely misinterpreted what you said. And then you might get your back up and sort of crack your knuckles and start typing a response that you're going to fire back at them. And this kind of stuff happens all the time and it can chew up a lot of time as well. And again, this is part of the irony: email is supposed to be this productivity tool but you can get into these disagreements over email that can chew up an entire afternoon, whereas if you just walk down the hall to talk to somebody in person you could probably solve whatever problem there is in two minutes and actually build a relationship.

If you think of culture as just kind of the sum total of the relationships that colleagues have with each other, the thing about email is it does literally nothing to build those relationships and is more likely to actually damage whatever connective tissue there is in the first place. And we've seen this behavior all the time in all our own jobs where people start these CC loops going and then suddenly you've got people like picking sides on an issue. One CEO had a great line; she said that email taps into a really bad part of our brain, which is the part that always wants to have the last word in a discussion and I'm sure a lot of people have seen that.

So, I've talked to a lot of leaders who have established very clear rules about email in their organization such as you're not allowed to argue over email. You might have one back-and-forth in which two people are disagreeing about something, but after that he said you've got to get on Skype, pick up the phone, or walk down the hall because again things can spiral out of control.  Jeff Wiener of LinkedIn had a good line. He said, "If you want to get fewer emails," because that's what a lot of people say it's like how can I not work on email, I get so many of them?  But he says, "If you want to get fewer emails there's a very simple way to do it, send fewer emails."  The fewer you send then that's going to avoid those sort of five back and forths that can chew up a day so quickly. So again a phone call, Skype, just walking down the hall can be so much more effective and will actually build those relationships that are so important to culture.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton