5 Reasons Your Email Isn't Working

5 Email Blunders Damaging Your Productivity and Reputation

You’re way past email blunder basics: replying to all with snarky remarks, sending the note intended for your wife to your boss or emailing when you’re angry. Your emails aren’t obviously stupid, so why aren’t they working?

5 Advanced Email Blunders

  1. The Barrage Effect – I was preparing the senior leader for an impromptu meeting on an unfamiliar subject. I wanted her to be as prepared as possible so I went through my inbox and forwarded the relevant information. One email had data, the other trends, the other some commentary that would give her a sense of the political landscape. I carefully commented on each one to explain the context. The phone rang. “Karin, I’m searching my inbox for your name and deleting everything that’s come from you. Now I want you to send me one email with concise bullets I can share at this meeting, nothing else.” When it comes to email, less is more. Summarize, synthesize, use bullets.
  2. It Should Be A Phone Call – I read his email three times. I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying, but it was ticking me off. I filled in the blanks with my missing assumptions. We went back and forth 3 times before we got to the root of the matter. Email feels easy and less disruptive, but often wastes time and drains energy. It the topic is complex, contentious, or emotional pick up the phone or schedule a call.
  3. Too Many CC:’s – I could feel her anger burn through the phone. “Why did he cc you on this email? I’ve got this! I’m not ccing his boss.” It hadn’t struck me as offensive.  I had taken it as an FYI. But to the leader neck-deep in resolution, it felt like an escalation. Be sensitive to who you’re copying on a note and why. If you wouldn’t draw them into a meeting or phone conversation on the topic, you may want to think twice. Even better, establish norms of who will be copied on project emails.
  4. Hastily Written – “Karin, how could you recommend this guy for a senior role? I know you say he’s good, but let me forward the email he sent along with his resume.” I was shocked at the grammatical problems: “there” instead of “their” “to” instead of “too.” This guy’s a great leader and knows grammar, but he was moving too fast. His excited response cost him the job, and embarrassed me for recommending him.
  5. False Summaries – We received the summary of the meeting in an email, but important detail had been left out. Was the oversight deliberate or simply sloppy? When summarizing meeting notes and next steps, always end with an invitation to add or clarify. I usually start with, “here’s what I captured, what would you add?”

See also: How to Dramatically Improve Your Team’s Communication

Posted in Communication.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. I know that it’s probably not great email etiquette but when I get an email sent to a bazillion people or cc’d to everyone and their grandmother, I rarely respond to the entire list. When possible, I want the sender to know that the conversation is between the two of us.

    My biggest pet peeve is email that is one really super long paragraph where I can barely make out the thoughts without reading it many times. I’m with you… Really? Have that much to say? Don’t go with email.

  2. Call me “Old School”, or maybe I should have been born in a different generation…I still prefer the telephone. I can’t tell how someone in receiving what I am saying over email and all too often, it is misunderstood. Thanks for the info Karin!

  3. Like Dave, I guess I’m “old school” also when it comes to email. Besides believing that the “reply all” button should be forever removed from email, a major issue for me is that you cannot interpret the true feelings of the person sending it you an email. You sometimes don’t understand if the sender is angry, happy, jerking your chain or something else, where as a phone call or better yet (my age is showing here!!) a face to face discussion where you can get to the real issue fast and not have to exchange emails all day. Emails are a wonderful communication tool if used appropriately, but too often that’s seems not to be the case.

  4. Email has become the blackhole of communication. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up and implemented. They’ve saved me literally hours a week and made me a better communicator.

    Use BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front. It’s a military term that means you should make your most important point first.

    SORTA – Stamp Out Reply to All. Reply to All is Neanderthal. I got this one from Tim Sanders. Tim says Replying to All is a sure sign that you are over 30. It’s a terrible habit.

    Include an explanation on forwarded emails. Please do not just forward an email to me and expect me to understand it or force me to read through 10 minutes of the email thread. Include a brief intro.

    Don’t ever copy over someone’s head.

    No bad news over email.

    I write about these and a ton more here: http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/how-not-to-suck-at-email-part-two/

  5. Maybe it’s just my company or my industry, but the higher up the ladder I am targeting my email to, the shorter the email. If I’m sending anything to C-Level, I better be able to say what I need in one sentence, no more than two because I know anything else will not be read.

    C – Level – 1 or 2 sentences
    Regional Managers 3-4 sentences
    Operations staff – paragraph or two

    BTW – my manager – Say it in the subject line 🙂

  6. Great points. Email is great for sending data and information. It is not great communication and really seldom really contains tone of voice. Have you ever noticed when someone reads a simple phrase in and email they inject tone of voice. A simple phrase:
    ‘Why did you do that?” can be innocent or quite angry.
    I have a small staff. I have a 1 email reply rule for me. If it requires a follow up, I get up out of my desk and walk over. I also seldom use an intercom, no body language there either.

    my biggest sin is typing too fast and leaving out details.

  7. Bravo Karin, great post and many useful responses. I too love Ali’s metaphor.

    I have learned that the one of the most powerful benefits I provide as a consultant is summarizing this situation and assigning priority for my clients. It gives them a useful starting place and helps them make decisions. They do not always agree with my ideas and priorities, but the summary give them a place to grab hold so they can start working toward the goal effectively.

  8. A phone call is always better than an email. The latter can be ambiguous.

    The new CEO of ATOS, an 80K person firm, declared three years ago they were eliminating all internal emails. They discovered almost 75% of them were unnecessary.

    Finally, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, makes it a point to stay in touch with customers. His email is jeff@amazon.com

    When he receives a customer complaint, he forwards the message to the appropriate person in the organization with one character “?” Luv Bezos

  9. Like many of the comments, I have been trying to modify my emails to make them shorter. My latest intentional strategy is to write one line per paragraph. That helps me limit my number of main ideas and it helps create visual white space so that the content doesn’t seem overwhelming to the recipient.

    I think hand-held digital reading devices are changing the way email and other communication is received, processed, and tolerated.

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