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Author: Laura G. McGee

Department heads communicate in a wide variety of ways. Even as offices have adopted tools such as instant messaging, email is still a mainstay—love it or hate it. Email can be an efficient way for department heads to transmit information to individuals or groups, even across geographical locations and time zones. It can be the bearer of promotion memos and raises, announce grant awards, and deliver long-awaited curricular approvals. All these are good things.

But email communication can also go terribly. Early in my time as department head, I received an email from a senior administrator. The page-long diatribe blasted my leadership skills. The author had also cc’d my supervisor and several colleagues. I was shocked by the behavior of this person, whom I had respected until that point. Did he think this was a good way to manage his concern? Did he believe he was setting a good example? I had to interpret his action as a dangerous lapse in judgement.

Even if emails aren’t as disastrous as this one, ineffective use of email can cause confusion, cost time, and damage relationships. A mindfulness checkup on your use of email can help you work better. The practical, actionable tips below will help you decide when to use email and write more effective emails.

Use the right kind of communication for your purpose

Email works well when the goal is to provide timely information to specific individuals or to document the delivery of information. A good use would be the distribution of a schedule of meetings or the announcement of a new procedure that goes into effect immediately.

Email is not well suited for solving problems, reaching consensus on an issue, or resolving a conflict. A poor use would be the attempt to select this year’s endowed speaker from a list of candidates or to fine-tune the schedule for the upcoming semester according to the latest enrollment data.

Face-to-face communication is more suitable in instances where tone of voice, facial expression, and body language support accurate delivery of your message—for example, when providing feedback or suggesting that a particular behavior change. Face-to-face communication affords more opportunities to clarify intent, develop an idea, and affirm good relationships. This can be especially important in relationships that may already be strained.

Choose your recipient list carefully

Consider addressing your email only to those people who need the information. If your “to” list is too long, recipients may feel like this information is not especially important for them and may not read carefully. Avoid using the blind cc function. It indicates that you are hiding something—and your attempt to communicate something without another person’s knowledge may backfire.

Establish the context for your email

Keep in mind that faculty members are extremely busy with teaching, research, and service in all its forms. Reading an email from you is just one of many things they do each day. Don’t assume they already know what you are talking about. Use keywords in the subject line so that recipients can  easily search their inbox for the topic. Put the most important keywords at the front of the subject line, so these are most visible in an overview of the inbox. Open the email with a sentence that also makes the subject clear, as not everyone has the subject line in mind when they begin to read an email.

Structure your email for maximum readability

You lose when your message is lost on your reader, so be brief yet clear. Provide information in a sequence that is logical for your audience. Keep sentences and paragraphs short to make your missive easy to read or skim. Consider using bullet points where appropriate. Refrain from too much friendly opening and closing chatter, which can distract from your message and may cause the reader to flag it for later reading. Bold or highlight action items and their deadlines. If you include a clickable link, make sure it works. Include the title of the source in case your recipient needs to access the link another way.

Be concise

Read through your draft and remove unnecessary words. Can you convey your message in half the length? Take a quick walk to the water fountain and then reread your message. Likely you can streamline it quite a bit. Finally, review once more to make sure your tone is positive and appropriately polite. I often write my business content then edit to soften things a little.

Be careful what you write

Remember that email can be forever. It can also end up where you did not send it. Therefore, some words of caution! Do not write in an email anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. Do not write things you would not say face-to-face. Do you feel a little uncomfortable about the email you have just written? Wait to send it until you are sure you want to stand behind your words. Do not write an email if you are frustrated, angry, or exhausted. If you decide to write one anyway, wait overnight to send it so you can review again the next day. Finally, if you think you need to write that last email before dashing out the door at the end of a long day, reconsider. Come back tomorrow with a fresh perspective.

Use “reply” and “reply all” judiciously

Many people despise email because emails seem to proliferate. If your email communication has turned into a dialogue or group conversation, consider moving the communication to a face-to-face or video-based meeting. This may be the best way to include everyone’s concrete input respectfully and accomplish the task quickly.

Set up a signature file

Use a concise and attractive signature file will help readers know exactly who you are. This saves time and gives consistency to your communication.

Take some time to reflect

Take a moment at the end of a day or a week to reflect. What problems do you perceive in your use of email? What exchanges are inefficient, take too much time, or would better be conducted another way? What emails did you receive that upset you and why? Which emails did you receive that were especially well composed? What can you learn from them? Taking a mindful approach will help you implement continuous improvement in your use of email.


Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.