Here is a simple fact: email sucks. Rule: you have to go out of your way to minimize the use of email -- both personally and within your teams.
Email should only be used for items of a simple, factual nature, and straightforward announcements. Email should always be a method of last resort, unless you are merely trying to convey a basic fact, like “The meeting will be at 2pm,” or a simple request, like “Can you send me a copy of the TPS report?”
As soon as you try to use email for stuff like “How come you did this?” or “Should we kill the XYZ project?” you are asking for trouble. Anything that can be considered controversial in any way should not be relegated to an emotionless, expressionless email. No, adding smiley faces doesn’t matter. Think of it this way -- the very fact that you have to put a smiley face in (to clarify your emotions) is proof that email is a lousy way of communicating!
You have no excuse to not have these types of conversations live. If you can’t physically walk over and talk with your employee, pick up the freaking phone. Skype. Facetime. Whatever. Just don’t start typing. You need to relish every opportunity to work face to face with each of your folks. That kind of contact is what prevents miscommunications, allows you to tailor your talking points dynamically, insert emotion as needed, and adjust the whole experience to how the employee is reacting.
What if one of your employees (or anyone for that matter), emails something inappropriate to you? By that, I mean something that you know doesn’t fit itself well to an email discussion. You have the chance to improve the situation immediately by not responding to the email. Again, pick up your feet or pick up the phone if you must, but do not click the “reply” button.
Furthermore, if you make sure that all of your employees follow these rules as well, you will promote much more productive general team dynamics. Every once in a while, someone sends the dreaded flame mail, or someone starts a very controversial discussion with an email “To:” list about 20 names long. Does he really think that is the most efficient way to discuss and settle something that contentious? That guy ends up in my office for a brain cleansing. Tell your folks in advance not to act this way.
As always, you can be your own best example. Resolve right now to use email only as a last resort. Remember, email sucks -- learn it, know it, live it.