LMP Focus Areas

Is Email Harming Your UBT?

Tips on how to use email effectively and boost—not batter—your team

Mandy Sly, a unit-based team consultant in Kern County (Southern California), was facilitating the launch of a unit-based team. The group suffered from low morale—a problem compounded by their habit of taking up difficult issues over email and liberal use of the “reply all” button.

“There was a lot of miscommunication,” says Sly, who is now a UBT coordinator in Southern California assigned to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. “Email is there to improve communication, but if it is not used properly, it can do a lot of damage to individuals, teams and organizations.”

Why does it matter?

Communicating by email is the norm for managers and many other workers at Kaiser Permanente—a great innovation, but fraught with potential pitfalls. And with the advent of unit-based teams, managers are likely to be carrying on email conversations with more people at more levels of the organization: labor co-leads, sponsors, facilitators and employees. That means email etiquette is more important than ever if the open, respectful communication that is part of the foundation of the Labor Management Partnership is going to help improve performance.

What’s the problem?

Stripped of tone of voice, body language and facial expression, email communication means those receiving the message don’t have some key (unwritten) information on which to base their interpretation of the content. In fact, people only correctly ascertain the intended tone of an email only half the time, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006. Worse, they have no clue they are getting it wrong. They think they’ve correctly interpreted tone 90 percent of the time.

“Email is not very good at conveying tone and nuance,” writes Alan Murray in The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management, to be published in October 2010. “That seems to be doubly true when the sender is a manager and the receiver is a subordinate. Suggestions made in jest can too easily be mistaken for serious commands; observations made with irony can too often be received as literal.”


UBT coordinator Mandy Sly

Email is there to improve communication, but if it is not used properly, it can do a lot of damage to individuals, teams and organizations.

Mandy Sly
UBT coordinator in Southern California

What can you do?

Murray advises using email to pass on straight facts or to praise or encourage people, but not to deliver bad news.

As for the UBT in Kern, Sly advised them to put a 30-day moratorium on using email to conduct team business. They agreed, even coming up with a list of topics that were appropriate for email—and those that weren’t. Those that were off-limits for email could be discussed, face to face, in huddles or with the team’s co-leads.

Only a week into the experiment, someone sent an email that fell outside the team’s agreed-upon parameters. But the other UBT members held the sender accountable for the action and moved past it. Gradually, as the month progressed, “people realized that the messages they had been sending were not the messages being received,” Sly says.

“This department still has a lot of work to do,” she says, “but they are starting to work through their differences.”

How to use email effectively

Here are some tips to help you make the most of the medium:

  • Read the email you are about to send out loud in various tones of voice to get a sense of how your recipient might interpret it.
  • Pick up the phone or stop by your colleague’s desk instead of using email, especially if what you need to say has emotional content to it.
  • Ask yourself: Am I sending this email because I don’t want to say something difficult face to face?
Check out these tips on how to have a difficult conversation or visit the Effective Communications section of this website.

“Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading on the Jumbotron in Times Square,” advises Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal.


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