I only recently came to respect this understated problem.

And I should know how vital the appropriate tone is in emails.

After all, some years ago, I wrote a no-fluff post about crafting powerful emails. It is now a recommended resource in the management communication module for executive MBA students at a globally ranked, double-accredited business school. I even updated the article a few months.

Moreover, in my bestselling business communication book Influence and Thrive, I dedicated a comprehensive chapter to emails.

Still, it was not until a few months ago, when a colleague in HR requested that I coach another colleague on email writing, that I realised I needed to tackle the issue of inappropriate tones in work emails. As the one-on-one coaching session with the colleague progressed, I saw how the wrong tone could cause your recipient to ‘tune off’ your content. It could also trigger defensiveness, an unfavourable perception of your character and other negative outcomes.

Then, last week, when I graded an email assignment I’d given to a batch of 55 executive MBA participants, all of whom were experienced professionals with notable career achievements, one thing became clear:

The tone of your emails can either get you the results you want or alienate your recipient from your content.

So, based on what I’ve come to appreciate in the last few months, below are the three reasons your tone is making you lose respect, business, and the cooperation of others.

1) Your tone lacks professional courtesy

And I mean basic manners.

For introductory emails, I’ve read accounts where the writers couldn’t manage an ice-breaker (‘I hope you’re well‘ or some other acknowledgement) before jumping into the topics at hand. 

Then some curtly list the first names of their recipients (thereby ignoring cultural norms) and head straight to their pitches:

Dear X,

My name is Y, CEO of Z. My company is…

Others don’t express any appreciation to the recipient with a simple ‘Thank you for your consideration’. They also don’t close with standard sign-offs such as ‘Best regards‘, ‘Kind regards‘, etc.

Good manners go a long way, and a respectful tone coaxes the recipient to read your email to the end instead of swiftly deleting it after a scan.

Think about it this way: If you met the recipient in person, would you skip basic courtesy in your business interactions?

Then don’t do so in your emails. Remember your manners create a perception of your professionalism.

Accord your recipient some respect and ensure your tone is courteous. Just as you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you generate more goodwill and consideration when you’re respectful and pleasant.

2) Your tone is entitled or arrogant

This problem was glaring in the graded scripts, but I’ve seen it in work emails and elsewhere.

I can’t think of a situation where coming across as entitled or arrogant when seeking a favour gets you what you want. And I don’t mean asking for what is legitimately due to you as a customer/employee/partner (although, again, being polite leads to quicker results).

Imagine walking into a shop with no money and demanding, not requesting, that the shop owner gives you a free item because you’ve been a loyal customer for years. You’re highly unlikely to get a favourable result.

Consider the two messages below:

Last year, we recorded X million USD in profits. As part of our expansion programme, we want you to partner with us to boost our operations in your region. Reach us on Y for more information.

(CEO in Scenario 1)

Last year, we recorded X million USD in profits. We’re currently expanding our operations in your region and would love to explore a mutually beneficial partnership. For more information, please get in touch with us on Y. 

(CEO in Scenario 2)

Don’t be the CEO writing the email in Scenario 1. The entitled tone quickly puts off the other party even if your company is the bigger fish in the proposed partnership. It’s also a glimpse into how you will be perceived in the relationship — brash, lacking emotional intelligence, and arrogant.

At work, for superior-subordinate relationships, where power sometimes comes into play, an arrogant email tone from a boss triggers defensiveness and anxiety in the recipient. Still, you’re likely to condone the arrogant tone if it’s not a regular occurrence. Otherwise, you may decide to refer the matter to HR on the grounds of harassment, in line with the organisation’s anti-bullying policy.

For co-workers, however, where there’s less patience in dealing with unpleasant situations, it’s a different ball game.

Consider the two emails below sent to colleagues:


I emailed you three times, and you didn’t respond. Send your quotes by 11 a.m. today. I won’t be held responsible if we lose the contract.


(Scenario 3)

Dear X,

Could you please email your quotes today by 11 a.m.? We’re running out of time, and I’m concerned that we’d lose the contract if we don’t submit our report then. You can reach me urgently on 080…




(Scenario 4)

Again, despite the frustration felt, don’t be arrogant ‘Jane’ in Scenario 3. Now, there may or may not be a valid explanation for the lack of response from the colleague. But as ‘John’ in Scenario 4, you’re more likely to get compliance by using a respectful tone whilst also communicating the consequence of inaction. Also, listing a number your colleague can reach you on communicates the situation’s urgency.

So, remember:

An entitled tone leads to loss of business and support as potential clients/partners/sponsors/investors avoid you.

An arrogant tone triggers defensiveness and delays results.

Since you want neither outcome, watch your tone.

3) Your tone is vague

Perhaps you avoid sending emails when there’s friction or unresolved tension. Perfectly understandable. When addressing sensitive issues via email, I often need to tread delicately. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid this scenario because emails provide proof and are a great way to vindicate you — if you routinely state your position and are intentional about your messages. In my experience, people will quickly deny what they’d previously said. However, if you have a record of discussions, your email thread shuts down all arguments and casts light on the mischievous antics of your opponent.

Other times, emails provide an incredible opportunity to reach professionals, business leaders, influencers, and other bigwigs whom you won’t have access to. Superbly constructed emails open doors. I can attest to this because emails have helped me to capture the attention of influential people and generate support for a worthwhile cause.

But here’s the thing:

Your emails must be precise, and your tone must be clear to get any traction. You’d need to communicate purpose and conviction quickly. But more importantly, you must address the relevance of your email to the recipient. So being vague and not tackling the WIIFM (the what’s-in-it-for-me) premise will lead to your emails being quickly deleted. And your persuasive email must start with an intriguing subject line that at least piques curiosity or appeals to the recipient in some way (based on the research you’d done beforehand).

In the email assignment that I gave to the executive MBA cohort I mentioned earlier, despite listing the instructions for the task, some emails were surprisingly vague — without subject lines or clear direction. I scored those write-ups very low, and if I were the recipient of those emails, I’d quickly bin them.

Writing with a vague tone and coming across as unsure of the value you offer won’t endear you to people you want to impress. Furthermore, not adding a clear call-to-action (what you want your recipient to do and how they should proceed) will lead to the perception that you’re inexperienced and unprofessional, further shutting down opportunities for consideration.

Don’t self-sabotage with your vague, unconvincing, and dry tone.


The good news is that you can fix your inappropriate email tone. Often, little tweaks improve the overall quality of your content.

Therefore, note the practical tips given in this article, and before you hit ‘Send’, read that email one more time to check that it’s polite, clear, and gracious. Work on your tone consistently, and people will commend you for your work.

Then teach others in your unit to do the same and let the positive ripple effects of great emails reverberate in your organisation.

Over to you:

Do you need help boosting your email skills to get results? Sign up here for my free quarterly newsletters and learn best practices. When you sign up, you’ll receive my evergreen resource on giving persuasive presentations. Ensure you download that document and refer to it before any high-stakes presentation or speech.

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N.B: First image is courtesy of Nadebrag via Pixabay. Second image is courtesy of Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Third image is courtesy of Bplanet via FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Last image is courtesy of John Hain via Pixabay.

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