Ask LH: How Can I Improve My Boss’ Terrible Email Habits?

Ask LH: How Can I Improve My Boss’ Terrible Email Habits?
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Dear Lifehacker, The manager I work directly under is a terrible emailer. Let me qualify that: he does the opposite of most common practises of effective emailing, uses terrible sentence and paragraph structure and uses technical terms incorrectly.

He runs a team of nine (including me) and much of his work is done by email. We all agree that it can take a few readings to find out what he is trying to say. It’s costing time and mental health. I’d like to know if it’s appropriate to intervene in this sort of a case and what options we have. Thanks, Nervous About Intervention

Confusing email picture from Shutterstock

Dear NAI,

I once had a manager who was overly fond of acronyms and abbreviations. It got to the point where approximately 30 percent of every email was a meaningless jumble of letters. Neither I nor any of my coworkers had the faintest idea what he was talking about half the time. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to appear ignorant in the ways of professional lingo, so we just bluffed our way through these exchanges and hoped for the best.

I’ve since learned that you’re usually better off intervening — especially if you can convince your colleagues into putting on a unified front.

The first step is to make your manager aware of the issue. Instead of trying to make do with the butchered information you have, politely ask for clarification when something unclear comes up. Every. Single. Time.

Get your colleagues to share the load and act as a sort of tag-team (otherwise he’ll simply think you’re dense). With any luck, your manager will learn to phrase things more effectively after some gentle prodding from the entire team.

If that doesn’t work, the next step is to request regularly scheduled meetings to review projects assigned by email so you can ensure everything is covered. Most managers are happy to implement anything that helps to streamline productivity and communication.

If you don’t mind being “that guy” you could also bulk-email a checklist of effective email practices without pointing any fingers. You can find some examples from our own website including Seven Ways To Manage Email, Three Rules For Stress Free Email and Always Add Value When Replaying To Email. Just be aware that this may cause your co-workers to view you as a passive-aggressive pedant (unless you bring them into the conspiracy’s fold of course.)

If any readers have some additional tips of their own, let NAI know in the comments section below.


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  • Check if your manager can touch type. Often, over-use of acronyms as well as the other problems mentioned can be an effect of poor typing ability. If they aren’t willing to learn, then perhaps suggest that they communicate over the phone to a nominated person who can then pass on the information to other team members in person, or perhaps by email (cc’ing in the boss).

  • I had a supervisor who had grammar, spelling and just general writing skills that were so poor that every email he sent me I had to reply paraphrasing saying, “I’m sorry, would you like me to do xyz?”

  • Unless you are his PA – in which case you should be doing his typing – leave him be. It’s not your business to be seen as correcting his emails.

    • So if you are being given instructions by your boss, and you don’t understand them – you don’t do anything?

  • @Jayd – What a ridiculous comment! So your boss asks you to to ABC but you do XYZ because you just “leave him be” and then on completion your boss asks “What is this? I asked you to do….” then that looks bad on you / team and could affect your job and future career. Had you asked the boss what he meant, the intended results would of been achieved in the first instance.

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