The Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email


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The Revenue Journal post on the worst mistake you can make as you manage via email (not responding) hit a nerve - not only with the people who recognized themselves as the non-responders, but with the people who work for non-responders.

So I checked with some readers and asked if I should be writing the definitive guide to managing via email. Obviously, their answer was yes. Very few managers have mastered it, and a lot of employees are suffering due to the mismanagement.

Before I get into the Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email, let's zoom up to the 35,000-foot level. 

Emails are messages stuffed inside boxes. The boxes have labels on them (subject lines, primarily, but also date and sender info). People who are working for you get instructions from you via email. When they work on their projects, they go digging in those boxes for the little bits of information they need to do the job properly.

If the boxes are mis-labeled, your people waste hours of precious time in every given week, going on scavenger hunts for the data they need.

That's why it's more important to CHANGE the subject line when the . . . ahem . . . subject changes.

If the subject line stays the same, but the content of the message changes, the whole searching system breaks down.
Most email software simply doesn't provide advanced search functions such as multiple filters. For example, if an employee searches for a word or phrase, such as "new product launch," she'll get all sorts of non-related results. She will have to hunt through the list until the desired email is found. It's disgustingly inefficient.

Every single time you start an email, get in the habit of applying focused brain power to the subject line. Even if you are replying to someone, if the email you are going to write calls for a subject change, change the subject line.

You can, if you must, say something like, "Shipping instructions (was 'need a refund')" or, "Merger candidates (was discussion re merger)."

Start thinking of your emails as a message inside a box, and the subject line as the box label, and you'll start doing a better job of managing via email.

Now, let's go back to the one-foot level, where the rubber meets the road.

The Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email

1.  If you can say it all in the subject line, do so - and say "EOM" at the end of the subject line.
I got into this habit because of Janet, a very efficient woman who worked for me for years, and who used this method very well. "EOM" stands for End of Message (and there's nothing further inside the message). So if you are simply giving someone permission to go ahead with something, or you are telling them you got something from them, and you don't need to go into any more detail, the message would be: "Go ahead with Plan B - EOM."

2.  Do not mix information, discussion, and instruction emails - and use appropriate acronyms in the subject line.
If you're sending something to someone that is not urgent and requires no action on their part, but is simply for their information, say "FYI" at the end of the subject line. If you're starting a discussion thread, put DISC at the end of the subject line. If the decisions have been made and it's time to give instructions, put TODO at the end of the subject line. Doing this will help your employees manage their time more efficiently. They will jump on the TODO emails right away, and will also make sure they open the DISC emails fairly soon after they receive them, so as to get their 2 cents into the discussion as it is occurring. And they will save the FYI emails for those more laid-back moments, such as while they're eating lunch, wrapping up their day, or even checking their email in the evening from home.

3.  Never, ever say anything nasty about anyone in an email. When you're talking over a personnel issue with another manager, it's easy to rant. It's also a very dangerous practice. At the very least, the IT guy might be that person's best friend, and your emails could get back to the person. Emails can also be seized in the case of a legal dispute, and that late-night profanity-laced venting email is the last thing you want showing up in court. One good rule of thumb: As you are typing, think to yourself, "What would I be saying if I knew that the person I was writing about was going to see this message?" Another good rule of thumb: Have those discussions on the phone or in person, not via email. Just tell the other manager via email that you'd prefer taking the discussion offline, or better yet, just pick up the phone. Which brings us to Rule #4.

4.  Know when to stop the email thread and call a meeting or pick up the phone.
Email is great for sending information and giving instructions. But there are times (as Mark Taussig mentioned in response to my last email article) when it's time to ditch the email thread and address the issue with a conversation. Also, some people follow written instructions well, while others need to talk things over. I was working with two graphic designers recently; one of them followed written instructions to the letter, and the other simply didn't. In her case, sending even a very specific email just didn't work. It was far more efficient to pick up the phone and talk through the issues, so that her brain could "own" them and then act on them properly. Train yourself to recognize when it's time to stop emailing and to start talking.

5.  Respond, even if it is just with a subject-only email: "Got the plan, thx, will get back to you - EOM."
All day long, we use email to send things to our bosses, employees, vendors, and customers. And they send stuff to us. Let them know you got it, so they can rest assured that you'll be getting back to them (and then, of course, do it).

6.  Don't think out loud to your staff or vendors via email.
If you are thinking something through, and want their participation, call a meeting. If you have thought it through and come to a conclusion, write a "TODO" email that tells them the conclusion/decision FIRST, explains why the decision was made and then assigns responsibilities. You cannot imagine how relieved - and more productive - your employees will be if you do this one thing right. Employees want you to lead, not muse out loud. They can't do anything with your musings except fret about them anyway - or come to the wrong conclusions based on the things you have written.

7.  Write very crisp and logical instructions. Write your instructions in outline format - numbers and bullets. Include everything they need to know to get started on the job. If something still needs to be determined or decided, say so - and in your next email, the subject line should be: "Project X - Shipping decision."

8.  Keep your subject lines consistent.
The best email managers preface their project emails with the name of the project, then the actual subject describing what's in the email. That way, when employees go looking, no matter who the email came from - you or another employee "replying to all" - all of that project's emails will be in one place, when sorted alphabetically by subject line.

9.  Never "reply to all" unless they all really need to know.
The bigger the company, the bigger the CYA factor. People hate to make decisions without "consensus," so they feel they must include other people in the email thread. The result is that managers can spend half their email time opening and scanning emails that are "fyi" only, and don't require any action on their part. While this does keep them in the loop, I estimate that at least 70% of those emails shouldn't have landed in their inboxes in the first place. In smaller companies, the company founder often sends "interesting" emails around to "everyone" without realizing how much he's disrupting their day. These emails are usually articles that resonated with the boss, but won't mean as much to the employees - and may even make them come to the wrong conclusion, which brings me to the last Golden Rule.

10.  Think about the real message they'll get, before you send the message you think you're sending. Let's say a company owner has just read an article about how one company merged with another, and managed to handle the merger successfully using particular work processes. The boss likes those processes. So he sends out the email with a subject line "Interesting article about X/Y merger" - thinking the employees will find the same work processes interesting. The employees get it and start wondering out loud, to each other, "Are we going to merge with another company?"

When the CEO sneezes, the whole company gets pneumonia. As the leader of your company, with lots of people looking to you for leadership, everything you say - every expression, every reaction, every offhand comment - is magnified and can be easily misconstrued. The best managers - via email or just in general - understand this, accept it, and behave accordingly. They are, in a word, careful. It's easy to shoot your mouth off when you're the boss, because you have an ever-present attentive audience. But it's a terrible, revenue-slowing practice, whether you do it verbally or via email.

Email is one of the most efficient vehicles for getting work done. Use it well and you will far exceed the efficiency of your competitors.

 

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Comments

The Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email

Thanks for this very helpful article. I saw areas where changes are needed in my email activities in most everyone of these ten suggestions.

It would be helpful to have a list of acronyms that can be used in the subject line to complete the message conveyed without adding any text in the body of the email. That is where I get into trouble and begin to ramble on with much more detail than is needed to say what could have been said in the subject line.

It will be possible for a small company such as ours to implement the use of these acronyms by simply making everybody aware of them. It may be necessary to include the list of the most commonly use ones as bullets or a note at the bottom of each email automatically (just like a signature does) for folks that may not be familiar with the acronyms.

I'm reading R of R right now and enjoying it immensely. Our little company, like many more I'm sure, has experienced a reduced flow of our "Revenue River" in the past several months. This is not a comfortable experience, but your book is definitely helping us to make the necessary adjustments to keep everybody on board and surviving till things get better.
Thanks
Robert Johnson

The concept of acronyms at

The concept of acronyms at the end of a subject line is a great idea. If you have more than EOM, DISC, TODO and FYI please share.
Thanks,
Jim North

List of acronyms

Thanks, Jim. It's interesting, isn't it, that LOL, ROTFL, IMHO, etc. have become quite common, and are useful for "chatting," but a set of "business use" acronyms for subject lines haven't really caught on.

Personally I think the list should be pretty short, so as not to complicate things. I felt that EOM, DISC, TODO and FYI covered pretty much everything, with the possible exception of "urgent" - but that can be handled by flagging the email as urgent within the emali application.

I'm not as happy with DISC and TODO as I am EOM and FYI - which are very straightforward. "DISC" could be mistaken for "discontinued" and I like "next steps" better than TODO - but it doesn't "acronym-ize" as well.

So I am open to any suggestions - "whatever works well" is what should end up in common use.

kz

Experience with Email Formatting?

I loved your post, thank you! It's the first thing I've read that's taken me well beyond some advice about "how not to annoy people with emails" by Scott Berkun. Bad habits duly changed...

I work with a number of people who choose to use plain text email clients and used to myself, which can effectively destroy any well intentioned bulleting, numbering or formatting in an email to bring attention to points. Do you have any advice on getting around this and making sure the intention isn't destroyed in the "downgrade".

Also, I frequently see "answers in-line" in responses and sometimes do it myself. Any feelings on whether this is a good strategy for responding?

Thanks,
Iain

Suggestions re email formatting

Hi, Iain. Very good comments - and questions. Let's see if I can shed some light...
1) Plain text emails can work just fine if you just dumb down the formatting a little. Instead of bullets, for example, use a dash before each "bullet point." Use caps for headers (not for text, obviously, because then you'd be SHOUTING. :-) Use line breaks. And, THINK. (OK, I was shouting there a little.) So many times I find that if I just take a few extra minutes, the desired communication is achieved. I just have to make sure I am not operating on autopilot, but really thinking hard about the person receiving the message and what I'm trying to convey.
2) I'm not a great fan of answers in-line. It quickly turns in to a mess. It's ok if it's just one pass between two people, but as soon as there are multiple participants and multiple exchanges, it simply takes too long to sort out what's new and what the boss is saying and what can be ignored. I much prefer taking snippets of the conversation and copying them into the new message on top, and addressing each point in turn up at that higher level. In truth, email is a terrible place to have deep discussions. You're better off moving them to a shared environment - like Google Docs or an internal Intranet - and setting up a table with cells devoted to certain subjects. Even that can get out of hand. When you spend more time trying to figure out "where you are" than you do reading what was said, you're in trouble. Phone or text chatting works better for discussions.
Does that help?
kz

E-Mail - Answers in-line

I agree w/KZ on the not including too many people on the answer in-line threads. However, I am huge fan of 'inline' answers when the discussion poses a series of questions requirng detailed answers. Its part of the beauty of the medium, it allows one to vissually diferentiate and speak to the context of each question.
Of course, I love to answer in a diferent color, font etc, but my cardinal rule is that answers must be bracketted for text only. <<>>

As an aside, I have required that Managers use the 'Kings English' in all communications. it is easy to slip into slang, but I think in the professional envirement, proper english keeps standardsup.

Kings English.....

This is particularly true if one cannot spell environment correctly on the first pass.,

These are some good tips when

These are some good tips when it comes to business communication via email. Often there is so much going on that things can get lost in the shuffle. Following these guidelines will help to keep everything organized.

sub-threading

If many people get involved gradually in the DISC and no other options except email are available, and the issue is complex and unknown, we get to the point where people are responding to more detailed issue than the original complex issue. New invitees may not have time to pick up the context of the original thread, while being bombarded with new DISC or TO-DO. And original thread participants may respond to these new subthreads.
So the question is: how to handle threads and subthreads of a complex DISC in regard to fleet of people that participate at any time in the thread/subthread? If the subthread should be separate how should we keep it related to original thread? Should the original thread be handled end to end by original thread participants (before the thread was extended by forwarding emails)?

sub-threading - solutions

Actually the time to start a whole new email thread is when it just begins to get out of hand. Whoever is "leading" the email thread (and there is hopefully someone doing that) should start a new email in which he summarizes the discussion so far, and then starts the new discussion thread.

If the original email should be split into more than one email - because new subjects came up - the same approach should be taken. Start a new email with the correct subject line, summarize the discussion so far - on top, with bullets - as short as you can make it - and then continue the discussion.

Frankly, though, if this happens to you a lot, you should consider using a wiki (or your intranet, if you have that capability in your intranet), so your discussions have some structure.

Hope that helps.

kz

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