Email enigma: When the boss' reply seems cryptic

A terse response -- or none at all -- to a work question can cause confusion and frustration. What's a conscientious employee to do?

By MSN Money staff Mar 17, 2014 5:14PM

Confused businessman working on laptop © Istock/360/Getty Images
By Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal on MSN MoneyMany employees labor over emails seeking guidance from the boss, only to receive a cryptic reply such as "Great!" or "Sounds good" — or no answer at all. The result: Confusion and frustration.

The potential for email misfires between bosses and subordinates is mounting, as the volume of email grows and more people read it on the fly on mobile devices. Sometimes the boss is too rushed to read. Employees fuel the problems by sending poorly written emails. Deeper issues can arise if bosses' and employees' communication styles clash.

Jill Campen was baffled recently when her boss, Marty Finkle, fired back a one-word reply to her carefully thought-out email asking for his approval on a client-training presentation she had prepared: "Done!" Campen, a consultant at Scotwork North America in Parsippany, N.J., puzzled over the message for a half-hour, then decided she was too upset to resolve the matter by email. She called Finkle and asked, "What is going on with you? 'Done?' What does that mean?"

Finkle, chief executive officer of Scotwork North America, a negotiating-skills training and consulting company, was dismayed. He told Campen that he trusts her to do a good job and went on to explain that he had been rushing to answer a client's email and empty his inbox of the 100 to 150 emails he receives daily. When her message popped up, his first thought was, "We've already talked about this. I could get rid of this really quickly." By the end of the conversation, the two were laughing.

The number of emails sent or received daily by the typical corporate employee is expected to rise to 136 by 2017 from 121 this year, based on projections released last November by the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif., market-research firm. Managers, who receive the most, are "flooded by email," says Nancy Ancowitz, a New York business communications coach. Many a manager multitasks to get through it all, "emailing from a mobile device at a stoplight, typing with his thumbs," Ancowitz says.

Some bosses don't answer at all. Nearly one-third of 700 employees surveyed by researchers at Florida State University said their bosses had given them "the silent treatment" in the preceding year, according to the 2006 study.

Managers sometimes use silence to pressure employees to come up with a solution on their own, says Joyce K. Reynolds, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., business coach. "Bosses have their own agendas. They don't always have the answers. Sometimes they don't want to give them," Reynolds says.

In other cases, bosses scroll over employees' messages because they have vague or misleading subject lines, says Jack Appleman, a corporate writing instructor in Monroe, N.Y. If an employee uses the same subject line on an email string long after the topic has changed, the boss's response is likely to be, "I thought this was already done," says Appleman, author of "10 Steps to Successful Business Writing." Subject lines should say exactly what is needed, such as, "Report: Approval needed by 5 p.m.," he says.

Some emailers annoy bosses with a long windup, such as "If it's not too much trouble, I was just wondering …," says Barbara Pachter, a Cherry Hill, N.J., communications consultant and trainer. They're usually trying to be polite but come off as passive, Pachter says. Reading an email aloud before sending it is a good way to ensure the tone is neither wishy-washy nor too harsh.

Other employees ramble on in "one huge paragraph" of 30 lines or more, like "a sheet of black ice," and then bury their question at the end, Pachter says.

Emails covering multiple subjects can be confusing, says Mike Consol, a Livermore, Calif., writing and corporate-communication coach; sticking to one issue is usually best. Some matters may be too complicated to handle on email, such as personnel issues or developing new policies.

Even well-written emails can elicit frustrating responses if bosses and employees have different communication styles. Bill Littman was annoyed last year when a thoughtful email that he had written about a client's suggestions drew a one-word response from his boss, Bryan Janeczko: "Yes." Littman says the email "seemed dismissive." He called Janeczko and asked, "Did you see what I wrote?"

Janeczko, founder and chief executive of Wicked Start Consulting, New York, says he thought Littman's email was well-done and valuable. He had been "running a million miles a minute" when he read it. He trusts Littman, a partner and director of operations for the firm, and he assumed his short response would convey approval, he says. With coaching from Ancowitz, Janeczko realized that as an extrovert, his straightforward, fast-paced communication style at times clashed with Littman's more measured approach typical of introverts. Janeczko began giving Littman more thoughtful feedback on email, and the two make time to talk more often.

Understanding your communication style — and those of your co-workers — can help avert miscues. At an engineering firm she headed several years ago, Allison Tabor realized she sometimes came across as curt in emails to certain employees who preferred warmer or more detailed communication. "I've had employees say, 'Ouch, that stings,'" says Tabor, now founder and owner of Coppia Communications, a San Ramon, Calif., coaching and business consulting firm. She began tailoring her emails to suit individual employees' style.

Other bosses and employees compromise to build good email chemistry. Cheryl Cofield, director of culture, diversity and inclusion at Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology, writes long, carefully crafted emails to her boss, Pearl Alexander. When the two first worked together three years ago, Alexander, senior director for people strategies, felt anxious if she didn't have time to write a thoughtful answer right away.

In time, Cofield realized that her boss trusted her and she didn't have to include so many details. She began putting questions at the beginning of emails, rather than the end. For her part, Alexander began dropping Cofield a short acknowledgment when her emails arrived, saying she would reply soon. She also set aside more time for answering email, talking by phone and meeting face-to-face. She says, "I stepped up my game."

More from the Wall Street Journal


Mar 18, 2014 10:10AM
Frankly, I don't understand why a "Yes." or "Done." response is a bad response assuming that's the appropriate response to the question you asked. Make sure that your email has a clear reason and an outcome. If you want approval for something, say it, and if you get a Yes! or Done! then, well, you're done. You got what you wanted. 

If you want feedback on your note, or something more than an approval, be clear about that. If you don't get the answer you want or detail you need, go talk to the person, and get the outcome you're looking for. 

If your note is just an FYI, you don't need a response by definition. 
Mar 17, 2014 8:56PM

This is dumb.

"What's a conscientious employee to do?" Simple: send the email again if no reply received the first time. If you still don't get a reply, then CALL him/her. Or (and this is obviously a novel idea these days) go to his/her office and ask in person. If you got a "cryptic" reply, then just ask for clarification. That, itself, is also simple. The reply is, "What?". There's simply too much "I-should-be-an-a**-kisser" mentality in the work place... and society. 

What has happened to people??????

Mar 18, 2014 11:33AM
Mar 31, 2014 2:25PM
my boss often ignores emails.  last year, I went on vacation for 2 weeks with my wife.  I spent the weeks leading up to it excited about it, talking about how I was looking forward to it.  my last day in the office, I was trying to finish up a few things, and I sent out 3 separate emails, all of which included my boss, in which I mentioned "I will be going on vacation starting tomorrow.  I will be back on April 2nd".  my first day away, my boss starts yelling, 'WHY DIDN'T ANYONE TELL ME HE WAS GOING ON VACATION!!"
Mar 31, 2014 1:43PM

My boss is absolutely fantastic when it comes to answering an email that ask's an "either/or" question with a yes or a no.


I've learned the yes or no is a response to whichever option I presented first.

Mar 31, 2014 1:58PM
Email at work has become a power play by the two top people.  One (a man) just deletes everything in his in-box when he feels overwhelmed (which is often because he is very dim).  He's quite proud of that - jokes about his time mangement skills.  Since he's the top guy here, everyone has to find another way to get an answer or approval because he will absolutely deny deleting anything important.  The second in command is the opposite (a woman).  Every email turns into an endless loop of goading, nitpicking, blame, until people snap and fire off something damning.  She lives for that - to throw people under the bus.  ("Well, too bad, but John's attitude has just deteriorated lately.  I can't recommend him for that promotion in light of his poor communication style.")  Most people talk to them directly if they absolutely must have a dialog - otherwise ignore the both of them as best they can.   
Mar 31, 2014 2:22PM
My favorite was, "Going forward we shall stay the course for the next six months after which the Steering and Communication Committees will convene with further recommendations of re-purposing staff and equipment."  "Re-purposing" made us all feel like furniture in a thrift shop.
Mar 31, 2014 4:05PM
Sometimes brevity is all that is necessary.  A subordinate commander once sent a message to George Washington stating, "Request permission to execute soldier for rape."  Washington replied, "So do."  Later, the subordinate commander replied, "Done."
Mar 31, 2014 3:54PM
I received many phone calls from an individual stating "I just sent you an email" and then a complete explanation of what the email stated. I would give an answer. Later I would receive a phone call stating "You never answered my email concerning .....".
Mar 31, 2014 3:43PM
In case you haven't noticed, all the @ssholes have the money, and left the idiots in charge. That's why I turned my back on Corporate America years ago. It's only about maximizing profits, no human factor left in them.
Mar 31, 2014 4:14PM
Mar 31, 2014 3:35PM
Wait on line...then hit thing you know...  we have taken over your mind
Mar 31, 2014 2:07PM

Woman: Boss, should I get job 'x' done by Friday?

Boss: Yes

Woman: What does he mean by that, I'm so confused!!

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