Your email is like a poison dart and Gmail is the blow tube. You blast out a digital missile to a coworker, explaining how he or she screwed up on a project. You use excruciatingly precise prose to explain every mistake, and you feel a little better about yourself.

The recipient? Not so much.

It turns out that sending negative emails can cause quite a bit of damage, according to recent brain science discoveries. In fact, every negative email creates a vicious cycle of negativity because the words linger long after you send them.

I'm combining a few fairly recent findings from brain science here, so bear with me. The first one is that we know positive emails release a small amount of dopamine in the brain of the person who reads the email; it's a feel-good moment that's almost like completing a task in a video game. We have a high-five moment with our own brain cells.

It's the same reason people get addicted to text messaging, social media, and watching videos for long periods of time. We like success, and we like getting emails that make us feel valued, important, and rewarded. We've known this for a while.

The second one, which I find fascinating, is that we are more inclined to think negative thoughts. It's just easier to get mad and write that missive about why we hate a coworker. You have to resist that temptation because it's not the smartest move. Keep in mind that the person who will read your email is looking for a dopamine hit when they open an email (see above), not a virtual sledgehammer that makes them feel like a failure.

And, from a management perspective, it's clear that we all crave positive feedback. I wrote about this topic recently and the emails came pouring in (most of them positive, thankfully) about how that reader was going to make changes in how they give feedback.

With negative emails, we tend to stew over them. This is not a minor issue, because one negative email can create a lingering sense of frustration and distrust. 

Think about how the findings above all conspire against us. 

The email recipient is looking for confirmation of success but hates negativity; you are more likely to send negative emails, and yet we all crave positive feedback.

It's like one bad email can trigger all of those negative reactions, one by one. Our brains are wired to not only send negative emails but also to react to them negatively, because we're looking for positive feedback. The brain is primed and ready to receive a dopamine hit, but instead, we find out about the ways we could have done better on a sales presentation or how we screwed up on a web design project.

Once you know all of this is happening, it's important to stop and think about how a negative email will cause lingering problems. A better approach is to stick to positive emails only--use the medium as a way to communicate facts and information, and to send positive messages that point out what the person did right. It changes how you use email.

The question you might ask is: How do you deliver bad news?

My advice is to always do that in person or by phone. You might already see email as a poor medium for explaining the intricate variables of work and answering questions that arise--it's so tempting to use email as a vessel for emotion. Yet, when you talk in person, you can read body language, answer questions, and smooth over the rough edges. And, the person who needs the constructive feedback is not in a mode of "give me positive feedback since that's why I'm checking email" and won't react the same way. It won't create the cloud of derision that one email can initiate.

Will you try switching your email strategy? Stick to positive messages only? My challenge is to do that for an entire month, then let me know how it all works out

Published on: Aug 20, 2019
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