I have seen it happen so many times. I have been the recipient, and I must shamefully confess that I have also caused it a few times as well. It goes something like this:
An employee sends an email to a coworker that is meant to relay benign, purely factual information about an important project they are working on together, a project that is about to be presented to the client and can make or break their advancement within the company.
Because the email begins with little or no context for the message, and/or because the sender uses a particular word incorrectly or structured a sentence so poorly that it altered the meaning or the tone of the sentence, the message is not well-received.
Tension between the two employees mounts as a result, tension that could have been avoided if the sender had what I refer to as effective ‘e-soft skills’, namely the set of skills needed for effective and appropriate email communication in the workplace. Because those skills were lacking, just one email caused a misunderstanding and negative feelings that could impact the quality of their joint presentation and ultimately threaten the project and their opportunity for advancement.
An ‘e-soft’ skill as simple as knowing to include a few sentences at the start of the email that sets the tone and provides context for the purpose of the email might have prevented the recipient’s upset. An otherwise well-composed, thoughtfully worded and straightforward email might have allowed the reader to recognize that it was entirely unintentional and overlook the fact that just one sentence with poor structure gave a paternalistic tone to what should have been a neutral statement.
Without question, technology-based communication, particularly email, has fundamentally improved the way individuals, nonprofit organizations, companies, governments, etc., interact, and we are all the better for it. This post is anything but an argument against the use of technology-based communication in the workplace (or for personal use). We should continue to use and in turn benefit from email and the many other forms of technology that increase our company’s ability to compete and increase marketshare. To do this, however, you need to ensure that your employees have soft skills specific to email communication, not just in-person and phone communication.
There is a strong evidence base showing the direct correlation between employees’ soft skills, often referred to as emotional intelligence, and the performance of individual employees and teams, organizational culture, and the overall success of a company. To date, our understanding of the soft skills necessary for optimal communication and interactions and, likewise, the types of soft skills coaching available for employees has largely centered around in-person and phone communication. Skills include tone, explicit and implicit attitudes, body language, word choice, eye contact, active listening, reading behavioral cues, and other skills.
While these skills, and the coaching offered by my consulting practice as well as others in the field will continue to be needed, our increasing use of technology as an essential form of correspondence calls for all of us, at all levels of the organization, to ensure we are also equipped with a somewhat different set of soft skills, namely e-soft skills that are specifically tailored to technology.
For technology-based communication, soft skills that employees need still include many of those we understand to be essential for effective in-person interaction, such use of tone, word choice, etc. But, the definition, teaching and application of these soft skills take on a whole new light when it comes to communicating through email and other forms of technology. It is not just the greater use of the written word, but also the specific writing styles needed for email and other forms of technology-based written correspondence to be most effective in a professional context.
Essential e-soft skills for the workplace also include logical flow, sentence structure, the ability to communicate information in a brief, cogent manner using bullet-points, among many other skills. These and other e-soft skills enable employees to communicate most effectively with one another and with customers, clients, competitors and other external parties, through technology.
With technology-based communication has come a greater emphasis on brevity, and the use of bullet-points or what I refer to as ‘articulate sound-bites’. The highest quality professional emails are mainly composed of short key points in list format and contain only a handful of brief paragraphs of text. Writing in a bullet-format is now generally accepted professional etiquette for emails. Twitter and other soundbite-only, fast-paced forms of communication also require a high level of comfort and proficiency as relates to vocabulary, tone, word-choice, logical ordering, etc.
Including e-soft skills as a criterion in your hiring (and firing) decisions, and providing ongoing professional coaching in this area for your new hires and prized employees is essential for your company to compete and thrive.
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