Email vs. Instant Messaging: A Cage Fight

Any idiot with a computer and a webcam can have a YouTube channel.  I am no exception.  Some of the YouTube commenters are on topic.  Sometimes, the responses make me question my faith in humanity.


A recent commenter, nicknamed (I assume) Issie Wizzie, brought up a great topic about the role of Instant Messaging (IM) versus email.  The brief conversation inspired me to think about electronic communication in the workplace.

Does email get on your nerves, too?  If so, then you are not alone.  In my coaching practice, the loathing and frustration that accompanies email management is something I help clients deal with almost every day.


For some businesspeople, one remedy to the email problem has been to start using tools such as instant messaging (IM) such as Skype Messaging.  However, this practice has stacked even more options for communication onto an already noisy pile.


So what do you do when you have two adversaries?  Pit them against each other in a cage fight.  Let’s get ready to rumble.


Battle #1: 


Stan and Lydia are under a shared deadline to deliver a project to their boss.  They have divided up the work and are diligently making progress at their desks.  Stan has a question about how they will format a section of the report and needs to ask Lydia to help him choose between two options.


Winner:  Instant Messaging.


  • The decision they are making would never be subject to official legal or regulatory recordkeeping policies.
  • Both parties are working on the same project at the same time. Stan’s IM is an interruption for Lydia, but at least it is on-topic.
  • The communication is transitory rather than formal. Its importance ends as soon as the answer is received.



Battle #2:


LaShawn is managing a project and has just left a meeting where she assigned responsibilities to the team.  The next meeting is in two weeks and there is quite a bit to accomplish between now and then.  She needs to clarify the action items and due dates.


Winner:  Email.


  • She is setting performance expectations. Should the team fail to meet deadlines, there are consequences.
  • It is likely that there are ancillary materials (e.g., documents and/or spreadsheets) that need to be included with the communication.
  • Mission-critical decisions were made during the meeting. The email is a business record.


Battle #3:


Carlos is diligently working on a report that his boss, Rick, asked him to draft in the next week.  Carlos has reached a stopping point and needs Rick’s input in order to proceed.  Carlos and Rick have their regularly-scheduled 1:1 on the calendar for tomorrow.


Winner:  Neither.  Wait for the meeting.


  • It is more efficient for both Carlos and Rick to deal with, say, ten questions in one meeting rather than ten questions individually via email or IM.
  • Both email and IM are interruptions. If Rick is like most managers, his calendar is full as is his email inbox.  If the question can wait for the next scheduled meeting, it should.
  • Email and IM should not be used in lieu of good time management practices. Carlos did not procrastinate starting the report, so he has allowed time to communicate with Rick without the need for urgent messages.


Email and IM are certainly not the only tools used for workplace communication.  But, they are among the most exasperating.


Frustration with any communication tool is rooted in misuse.  The important thing is to match the message to the medium.


Thanks to Issie Wizzie for bringing up this important topic.

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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Omkari Williams

    Thanks for the clarity. This is a really good way to decide which route is the best in a given circumstance!

  2. Julie Bestry

    Doc, as always, you provide the sanity this world desperately needs. Your logic in each case is impeccable. Of course, my preferences are always, in order: telephone, email, instant message, meeting. (I’d prefer to never attend another meeting, ever. And I’m a people person!)

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      I hear you on the phone thing. The concerning part is that my daughter would no more make a phone call than go to high school wearing a big banana suit. She thinks I’m crazy that I maintain a land line for my business calls.


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