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Emotionally Intelligent Emailing for Leaders

How would you like to always feel good about the emails you send?  Wouldn’t it be great to avoid that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach you sometimes experience after clicking “send”?  If you are like me, you have experienced “email remorse,” the feeling that you wrote something in an email that you will regret, or already do regret.  The good news is there is hope for us to end email remorse. That hope is found in embracing excellent communication skills that are based on emotional intelligence.

As an early adopter of email back in the 1990’s, I quickly learned about email remorse. I was working for a CPA firm at the time and allowed myself to get into a politically-charged email exchange with a colleague. This colleague and I did not share the same political bent, and unfortunately, I unintentionally personally offended him through our email exchange. I apologized, but like any heated conversation, apologies never wholly erase the words we unwisely communicate.

To avoid the email remorse I experienced, it is vital to embrace emotional intelligence in our communication style. According to author Gill Hasson, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage emotions.” The author noted, however, that emotional intelligence is not just about understanding and managing our own emotions, it also includes understanding and managing the emotions of others.

When we are emailing, we need to keep our own emotions in check and consider how the recipient will respond emotionally as well.  This is where the “intelligent” part of emotionally intelligent emailing comes into play. We have to think about the content of our emails and the emotional responses we anticipate receiving back.

Our Words Matter

As leaders, the words we communicate are important.  The way we communicate and the words we use define us as leaders.  In fact, we learn from leadership communications experts that increasing our communication skills actually increases our competence as leaders. Improving email communication skills is part of becoming a more competent leader.

Becoming an emotionally intelligent emailer is really about who we want to be as leaders.  In our homes, in our places of worship, at school, or at work, the way we communicate and what we communicate matters.  Through our words, we have the opportunity to inspire those around us rather than creating tension and confusion. Leadership communications expert Stephen Denning explained the importance of a leader’s words:

“It’s what leaders say—or don’t say—that has the impact. The right words can have a galvanizing effect, generating enthusiasm, energy, momentum, and more, while the wrong words can undermine the best intentions and kill initiative on the spot, stone dead.” —The Secret Language of Leadership

Using the “right words” is vitally important in email communication. Our words can encourage, clarify, and motivate if we use emotional intelligence when crafting emails. On the other hand, if we lack emotional intelligence in our email practices we can harm our leadership effectiveness.

Impressions Matter

Leadership is a complex interaction between leaders and followers. People choose to follow us as leaders based in part on how we communicate. How we communicate creates an impression of our leadership in the hearts and minds of followers.  Being an emotionally intelligent leader requires us to manage people’s impressions through communication.

Our communication style also reveals our character and maturity to those who receive our messages.  Researchers have confirmed that senders of polite and grammatically correct email messages are perceived as being more competent. As a result, changing for the better how we communicate via email will have a positive influence on people’s perception of us and improve our competence as leaders.

Understanding Matters

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said,

but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

—Robert McCloskey

One of the challenges in effective communication is that it doesn’t really matter what we meant to communicate; what is important is what the other person perceives we are communicating. The message the other person receives is what is actually communicated.

Donald K. Smith, in his book, Creating Understanding, explained that “Communication is a transaction in which there is simultaneous giving and receiving. The message is modified even as it is being communicated.” Leaders and followers create understanding through verbal and non-verbal interaction back and forth.

The intended message is not always the message the other person receives. In face-to-face conversations, we have the opportunity to clarify if the other person understands what is being said; however, email makes it difficult to engage in simultaneous interaction.  To be emotionally intelligent emailers we must seek to create understanding through our email exchanges.

Challenges of Email Communications

Email is an inherently limited means of communication. Experts explain that email lacks many of the social cues we employ to interpret the words a person uses. When we are speaking to a person over the phone, we also pick up the tone of the speaker’s voice which gives us significantly more information to interpret the words than an email would.

For example, a simple question like, “Why did you miss the meeting?” can be interpreted differently based on the assumptions of the recipient of the message in an email. However, if one hears the tone of voice used, then they will understand if the person is asking a simple question or if the questioner is irritated.

Missing Cues

Face-to-face communications (in-person or via video) add another layer of comprehension to communication to help understand the message being sent. That layer is non-verbal cues: the expression on a person’s face, their posture, etc. Since email lacks the ability to communicate verbal tone and non-verbal cues effectively, it is emotionally intelligent of us to avoid sensitive or inflammatory discussions via email.

Five Steps to Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Emailer

1) Be Civil. Research has verified that having a high workload contributes to email incivility. In other words, when we are under pressure from our workload, we are more likely to send uncivil emails. Additionally, the same researchers found that receiving an uncivil email increases the likelihood of the receiver responding in an uncivil manner, thus escalating a conflict.

Another study revealed that uncivil emails from supervisors caused employees to have lower job satisfaction, lower commitment to the organization, and higher turnover. Although these results may appear to be obvious, they reveal valuable insights for us as leaders seeking to influence others for the better.

If we want to be competent, transformational leaders, we need to avoid incivility in our emails. This requires us to avoid sending contentious or sensitive emails as well as refusing to respond in kind, or at all, to an uncivil email. There are better ways to resolve conflict than via email.

2) Write Out Your Thoughts. When we are annoyed, irritated, or angry, we should not send an email. However, it can be helpful to write out our thoughts so we can deal with our emotions in an emotionally intelligent manner.  Writing out our thoughts (and not sending them) can help us to calm down and allow the reasoning part of our mind to think through how to proceed.

3) Go Talk to People. Jesus taught his followers that if they have anything against anyone else they should go and clear things up in person. This is still great advice.  Email should not be a substitute for having difficult conversations in person. Too many people avoid face-to-face discussions and use email instead.  Without the verbal and non-verbal back and forth of an in-person discussion, we risk misunderstandings and making the situation worse.

4) Call or Video-Conference.  If a face-to-face conversation is not feasible due to distance or urgency of the matter, then we should seek to call on the phone or video-conference. Each of these options adds valuable communication layers of voice tone and non-verbal cues respectively.  Adding these factors will minimize misunderstandings and confusion.

If there are circumstances that require an email instead of communicating face-to-face, or over the phone, it is best to stick to the facts. The limitations of email make it a poor choice for potentially emotional interactions.

5) Consider Your Audience.  When we hit send, we are no longer able to limit the audience of our email.  Internet conflict experts have highlighted that the inability to limit the size of one’s email audience also increases the risk of conflict through email. It may be forwarded to others or even published on the internet. When emailing, we should remember that the entire world is potentially our audience.

Part II of considering your audience is taking into account cross-cultural differences when emailing. We live in a day where we interact with people from a variety of cultures.  We may be communicating with colleagues in our country who are from a different cultural background or associates that live in another culture. Either way, emotionally intelligent emailing requires us to stop and ponder how our message will be received from a cultural perspective.

For example, research has identified that different cultures have varying expectations related to how formal an email should be, or how precise the wording should be, and even how task-focused or relationship-focused email should be.

Understanding cultural impact when emailing will require research on our part. However, there are many resources available that explain differences in cross-cultural communications. The country-specific, “Culture Smart!” book series, is a particularly helpful starting point.

Keep Calm and Email On

It has taken time, maturity, and some failures along the way, but I am experiencing less email remorse. Fortunately, by embracing the suggestions above, I have made tangible progress toward being an emotionally intelligent emailer and leader.

Changing how we communicate will have a positive impact on those we interact with as leaders.  Demonstrating leadership maturity, emotional intelligence, and competence through our email interactions will foster change in our families and the organizations with whom we serve.  In turn, our growth as effective communicators will fuel transformation as we communicate well with others.

David Love is a doctoral student in Strategic Leadership at Regent University in Virginia and a National Mobilization Director for a global ministry. He desires to make leadership theory understandable and applicable for the public and emerging leaders. He and his wife, Catherine, have been joyfully married for 29 years and have two married daughters. David and Catherine currently live in Roxborough, Colorado where they enjoy the (mostly) beautiful weather and where David has ample opportunity to mountain bike.