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How do you boost work relationships over email?

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We all remember receiving that email, don’t we? The snarky one from a colleague we read on a Friday night that ruined our weekend. Five years on, it still irks.

Email can make or break relationships, yet 86% of professionals still prefer it as their main form of communication (Hubspot, 2020).  So, it’s staggering that most of us have never been taught how to write a good one.


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Used mindfully, email helps teams communicate effortlessly and stay connected from afar. Used carelessly, it creates cracks so wide you can drive a monster truck through them.

Here’s how to use email to build trust and strong relationships at work.  

 

Treat email as a conversation, not a weapon

Have you ever said ‘I’m going to fire off a quick email’? It’s no coincidence we use the language of warfare when we talk about emails, because that’s frequently how we approach them.

All too often we treat email as a tool for one-upmanship, instead of relationship building – a record of things our recipient supposedly has or hasn’t done.

I came across one project manager who had a reputation for being difficult because he regularly deployed the passive-aggressive phrase ‘Cc-ing in your manager for clarity purposes.’ In person, he was warm and cooperative, but that wasn’t enough to save him come bonus time.

Irritable emails cause resentment, especially when we copy in others. It’s like calling someone out in a meeting: humiliating for the victim. And unlike verbal spats, which might be resolved after a quick chat at the water cooler, an email is a permanent reminder.

So:

  • Slow down – think about how your email might affect your relationship with your recipients (haste is the main cause of misunderstandings)
  • If you doubt how your email will land, pick up the phone instead
  • Don’t say anything over email you wouldn’t say to someone’s face

 

Be known as a great emailer

Experts agree the biggest factor separating high-performing teams from average teams is trust. And trust can be quickly won or lost over email.

One of my clients vented recently that her line manager never replied to emails. She found it disrespectful and said her whole team had lost faith in their manager as a result. Their 360-degree feedback pulled no punches.

But it’s no surprise. Trust is built when we do what we say we’re going to. When we consistently honour commitments, and keep promises.   

So, you need to set expectations with your team and colleagues about how quickly you aim to reply to emails (and if you prefer a different method of communication, tell them). 

If you are going to take much longer than usual, send a holding email. A good template is: 'Thanks for this. I’m in all-day meetings until Friday but I’ll get back to you then’. 

Make sure to respect other people’s time by writing clear, thoughtful emails with a clear next step and only copy in essential people. 

 

Write the emails you’d love to receive

Leadership teams, especially HR leaders, should lead by example, writing emails that are respectful, easy to read and act on.

I once worked for a CEO whose trademark was a one-word email: ‘NIKE’ (meaning: Just Do It). This didn’t go down well with his overworked exec team who needed better direction and a gentler tone.

Many of my clients find an email style guide helpful to get everyone on the same page. These can cover: 

  • Best practice for writing and responding to emails
  • Tone of voice guidance to make sure emails reflect your company culture (e.g. if you’re a laid-back tech business don’t start emails with ‘I hope this email finds you well’. Likewise, if you’re in a more traditional sector, you might not want your teams to address clients with ‘Hey’)
  • Out of office guidance – are you expected to check emails? If so, how often? What should you write in your OOO reply? 

So, the next time you dash off an email on autopilot, remember your end goal. If you want to build positive, productive working relationships, a more thoughtful approach to email can be make or break.

 

Kim Arnold is the author of Email Attraction