In teaching a program on Managing Conflict recently I asked participants to name some of the sources of conflict in their organization. They offered many suggestions about the things that cause conflict to arise, and the strongest sources of conflict, the ones that seemed to generate the most nods of agreement and emphatic responses, centered around communication – lack of communication, miscommunication, conflicting messages, and misinterpreted messages.

Certainly what we communicate, when we communicate, and how we communicate can either help or hinder understanding, consensus, support, and the achievement of results. Often the absence of communication – failing to inform people impacted by a change or decision, taking action without getting input from others, assuming others have the same information that you do – is a potent source of conflict as people feel left out of the loop, disconnected, and under-valued.

As we discussed how miscommunication occurred, participants shared examples and at the heart of miscommunication, they said, often is the use (and misuse) of email. From frustration with being copied on unnecessary email messages to confusion about a colleague’s inexplicable rant about what seemed to be a simple email request, email is a significant source of annoyance, distraction and, yes, conflict in the workplace. So I decided to do a little research to see what best practices are out there for keeping conflict caused by email use at a minimum. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Institute email-free Fridays – One Managing Director I spoke to described a practice which was instituted within his office to get people talking to each other. Every Friday, instead of emailing back and forth, colleagues would stop by each other’s offices, pick up the phone, or set up impromptu group meetings. This helped promote camaraderie and did wonders for building relationships within the office.
  2. Shorten email chains – There’s nothing more annoying than scrolling through countless email exchanges to figure out what the communication is all about – or forgetting what the original message was all about after an unending stream of replies and forwards. One way to address this problem is to limit the number of back and forths to four or five (or whatever number is most beneficial for your office). After you reach that number, it’s time to pick up the phone or meet in-person to have a live conversation.
  3. Consider Skype, WebEx, or other web-based tools – Many of us work remotely and find that it is often easiest to send email rather than call. However there are many web-based options for having more interactive exchanges with colleagues such as Skype video calls or WebEx online conferences. This technology enables you to engage in real-time dialogue, provide information, and clear up any miscommunication that may occur.
  4. Avoid cryptic email messages – Often in our drive to accomplish more in less time, and multi-task (a very ineffective way to work), we dash off brief, pointed emails that can lead to misinterpretation, assumptions, and confusion. By taking a few moments to think through an email, just as you would a memo or other correspondence, you can ensure that your message is complete, clear, and, dare I say, courteous. I often have to go back during my rush to send an email and add a “Hello” or “Hope you had a great weekend” so that my message is complete.

Email is a great way to disseminate information quickly and efficiently. It can also lead to misunderstanding and conflict when used improperly. Many organizations have taken steps to address email overload and misuse.

What ideas have you seen that work well to address this problem?
Tell us about it.

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