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How to Avoid Writing Toxic Emails That Put Your Employees Down


Have you ever received an email from someone who you knew was calling you an idiot? You didn't need them to spell out y-o-u i-d-i-o-t for you to know what they were saying. You knew that you were being talked down to. We've all had the experience of getting toxic emails that made us feel like a deer in headlights as the writer's snarky tone smashed into our self-esteem. Recent research at the University of Illinois found that rude workplace emails have a lingering effect on employees' wellness.

We can't control when others might write these kinds of emails, but we can control whether we write them. In our email training, we advise business people to follow the "You Idiot!" Rule. If you read an email that you've written aloud and find that you can naturally add the words "You idiot!" to the message, do not send the email.

Think back to the time when you were the unlucky recipient. How did the email make you feel about the person who sent it? Friendly? Angry? Defensive? Did the email's tone create openness to the writer's message or resistance? If you're like the hundreds of people to whom I have posed these questions, the "you idiot" email did nothing for the writer's relationship with you or, more importantly, for the success of the communication, other than to let you know the person's withering regard for your capabilities.

Occasionally, a business leader might feel tempted to shoot off a "you idiot" email because they genuinely think the reader is an idiot, and they want to tell them so. But I think this is the exception.

More often, these snarky emails escape the confines of the writer's emotional filters and race forward to ruin relationships in the workplace. In other words, the writer did not consciously think they were calling you an idiot. But you and I know they did it.

What can you do to ensure you do not break the "you idiot" rule?

Don't email when you are angry or upset.

Even if you are not upset with the person you're writing to, your emotions may bleed into your communication. If you are actually upset at the person you plan to write to, it's even more essential to manage your emotions before your fingers hit the keyboard. Get up from your desk and take a walk. Take three deep breaths. Recite a mantra. Do whatever will break the cycle of negative feelings and enable you to center your energy again. Then tackle the email.

Resolve issues straightforwardly.

Rather than shooting off a passive-aggressive missive, identify your concern and express it in clear, unemotional language. For example, if a person failed to show up for a lunch date, you have a choice of how to respond. You could write, "You didn't show up for our lunch date today. I waited an hour," which is clearly a "You idiot" email. Conversely, you could write, "I missed you at lunch today. Is everything OK? Let me know when you'd like to reschedule." Or if someone did not include you in an important meeting, you could write, "I was hurt that you did not include me in the meeting," instead of "I can't believe you held that meeting without me!"

Avoid questionable terms.

Words like actually, just, and fine can easily be interpreted as passive-aggressive. Keep your word choice neutral.

Reread every email before sending it, keeping the reader in mind.

People often send toxic emails in the heat of the moment without considering their tone or likely results. Then they live with the tattered morale that ensues. Preclude this unpleasantness by disciplining yourself to read every email before you send it. We can protect ourselves by developing a firm habit of reading before sending. Do not rush to write; the person won't die if they wait a few hours for your message.

Get someone else to read it before you send it.

If you have any doubt about the tone of your email, run it by a trusted adviser or friend. Give them the chance to say, "You were actually thinking of sending that email? You idiot!"

Business relationships rely on mutual regard. When we allow ourselves to break the "you idiot" rule and send hostile or passive-aggressive emails to colleagues, we tear at the fabric of our organization's culture and undermine the very connections on which we ultimately rely to get our jobs done. Remember the proverb that says you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? It's still true.


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