4 cardinal sins of work communication

June 19, 2012: 10:53 AM ET

With the variety of communication methods available, it's easy to grow frustrated by annoying associates or clueless clients. It's also easy to find yourself becoming a pest.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

FORTUNE -- Everybody knows a communications outlaw. Maybe it's the colleague who sends you three emails in the space of an hour, each with partially formed ideas about a project. Or the conference call host who lets the conversation ramble, without any thought of an agenda.

With the variety of communication methods available, it's easy to grow frustrated by annoying associates or clueless clients. But is it possible that your own behavior is bugging someone else?

"We're not using these tools as productively as we could," says Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with your Smartphone and a professor at Harvard Business School. "There's a huge opportunity here, in small doable steps, to create much better communications."

In the interest of helping us all avoid communications purgatory, here's a brief taxonomy of the worst offenders.

The smartphone addict

You know this guy (or gal). His phone is on the table during every meeting or lunch. He can't stop fiddling with it. The worst addicts actually check email and type responses while other people are talking.

The problem: The message the smartphone addict is sending, deliberately or not, is that you aren't a priority. Something or someone more important could potentially reach out at any minute. "If the phone's on the table, it shows where your attention is," says Matthew Proman, founder of the National Association of Professional Women, a business networking company.

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The solution: Put the phone away. You actually will live for 60 minutes without checking email or text messages. It's just that simple. If you're expecting a genuinely urgent call, explain that at the start of your meeting, and excuse yourself from the room if the call comes through. As a bonus, you'll get more out of your in-person interactions without the electronic leash.

The stalker

We are all overloaded with emails and demands on our attention. The last thing we need is to receive the same question from a colleague via email, text, and instant message in the space of an hour. "Savvy communicators can try three different modes of communication over the span of 72 hours," says Brad Karsch, president of JB Training Solutions in Chicago. "Any more than that, and you're a stalker."

The problem: The stalker doesn't recognize that his urgent question isn't everyone's emergency. This is the same fellow who marks 90% of his messages as urgent. Often, the stalker fails to communicate completely in the first email, and then needs to send three follow-ups to finish the message he wants to convey.

The solution: Gain a little perspective on whether the matter is truly urgent. Batch emails. Use bullet points and the subject line to give your message some additional clarity, and proofread your emails before sending. Keep it short so that people don't miss part of your message. "If I have to scroll down to read it, this should never have been an email," says David Adams, a vice president with Adecco Group, a global staffing firm says. Instead, "have a live conversation and use the email to summarize what you discussed."

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The master of disguise

When you want to get in touch with this shifty character, you never know which email account is best to try, or whether you'll hear from him via text, instant message, or email. Perhaps you start a conversation on email, he continues it via IM, and concludes it with a text.

The problem: You don't want to be enigmatic in the workplace. Your contacts need to know how to reach you. It's okay to switch communications methods once, such as sending an urgent text when you leave the office and don't have easy email access. But going back and forth unnecessarily is just confusing, and makes it hard for your colleagues to review the entire thread of a conversation.

The solution: Ask people upfront about their contact preferences and methods. Then stick to that plan, aside from the aforementioned emergencies. You might even decide as a work group on certain communications protocols, such as setting instant message status to available, unavailable, or back soon. Harvard's Leslie Perlow has helped teams boost productivity and satisfaction through simple agreements around communication. For instance, a team may agree to avoid sending or answering email after 6 p.m. at night or to designate daily blocks of time for uninterrupted work.

The cc: abuser

Almost as soon as email was invented, someone began overusing the cc: field. And email inboxes around the world began to clog.

The problem: The best way to reduce email clutter is judicious sending. If you send email to more people than necessary, you're likely to receive unnecessary responses, creating a snowball effect. Moreover, some people may take offense at an overly broad distribution. For instance, if you cc: a superior unnecessarily it can inadvertently send a message of distrust. "The number one best practice is to decide, 'Who is the email for?'" Adams says. "That thought process alone will reduce the amount of emails."

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The solution: Only include people on emails if they truly need to follow the tick-tock of the conversation. For others, you can summarize in an in-person conversation or weekly update.

Follow these rules and you'll be fine:

1. Pick the right medium for your message. Text or IM something short and urgent. Email a longer message. Pick up the telephone for anything complex or potentially emotional.

2. Only include people who truly are needed in a message, conference call or meeting.

3. Consolidate your communications and use clear email subject lines.

4. Think before you hit send.

5. Be respectful of others' time and priorities.

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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