Four Essential Rules of Email Discipline: What Weapons Safety Can Teach Us
Christian Knutson posted on November 13, 2014 |

For certain email is not a deadly weapon.  Or is it?  Most of us at some point or another complain about the amount of email we get, the email we have to send, the unimportant courtesy copies about issues we know nothing about or care about, or the multitude of other emails that truly don’t inspire or require us to do anything...except strike delete.  All of this virtual message traffic yields actual angst and stress.  So in a way, we might die a little every day we open the inbox.  But it doesn’t need to be this way and we can thank the Marines for showing us how.  Through their rules of weapons safety.

Weapons Safety and Email Discipline 

Rule #1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded

Translation:  “Treat every email as if it were a face-to-face conversation”.  An email sent is a like a bullet fired at a target.  So make certain what you’re firing off is done so in a calm manner and is the equivalent of what you would say to someone face-to-face.  In fact, if you have to put bad news “downrange”, do it face-to-face or via phone - don’t hide behind virtual kevlar.

Rule #2.  Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.  

Translation:  “Never use reply all or courtesy copy the world.”  How many emails do you delete a day on which you’re cc’d because someone just hit “reply all” on a message?  When was the last time you hit “Reply All” and fired-away?  Just because a lot of people might have received the message you received, doesn’t mean they need to get your reply or that they even have part in the issue.  Always review the “To” and “Cc” blocks to selectively target your recipients.  Don’t assume that just because someone received the note, everyone has to hear your reply.  Firing for effect might be needed in combat situations, it doesn’t work in email communications.

Rule #3.  Keep finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire

Translation:  “Fear the send button”.  Have you ever sent an email that as soon as it left the inbox you either (a) dreaded what might happen next or (b) required you to immediately recall it?  Always double check every message you’re sending to ensure that spelling is correct, you’re using proper grammar and structure, the right addresses are included, and the attachment is attached.  Most importantly, check the tone of the message and ensure you’re not getting ready to put lead downrange (see Rule #2 above and Rule #4 below).   

Rule #4.  Keep the weapon on safe until you intend to fire

Translation:  “Dont use email in anger unless you intend to”.  Harsh words spoken remain in memory and will either fade or change in context as time passes.  Harsh words fired in an email last forever.  Not only does the recipient get your point, they in turn get to share your eloquence with whomever they please.  The alternative: don’t use email to convey your anger.  The better option?  Sleep on it and respond tomorrow.  Better yet, if you have to fire off your displeasure, do it face-to-face.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life design for engineers and professionals.

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at

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