– Every month, colleagues at your company’s other locations send you their headcount figures, so that you can compile a report for the whole of Europe. One particular colleague never sends her figures on the agreed date, you always have to send her a reminder.

– A colleague discovered some information which you’re not ready to share just yet. You asked him to keep it to himself for the time being. From the questions you’re now getting from other colleagues, it’s obvious that he’s ignored your request.

– One member of the team misses a deadline, holding up the whole project. When you, as the project leader, write her a mail asking when you can expect her input, she replies that other work has priority right now.

Unless you’re very lucky, at least one of those situations is probably all too familiar. Some colleagues don’t do what you asked them to do, others do what you specifically asked them not to do. And for many different reasons – ranging from a heavy workload or an oversight to a deliberate attempt to test your boundaries or question your authority.


Should I do anything about it? Can I do anything about it?

It’s not easy or pleasant to call a colleague out on these matters. So naturally it’s tempting to tell yourself: “Better not rock the boat.” “It’ll all sort itself out.” “That’s just the way she is. I won’t change her.” But actually you do usually need to take action. Because, firstly, if emotions like anger, frustration or disappointment aren’t expressed, they can take up far too much energy. And they can build up and grow out of all proportion, poisoning the relationship – often without the other person realizing why. Secondly, to do your job effectively and be taken seriously you need to make it clear what you stand for, how you expect to work together, what sort of behaviour you won’t accept.

So the issue needs to be addressed in a way which is clear and firm, yet at the same time respectful and appropriate. Ideally, the relationship will be improved after you’ve tackled the problem.


Can I deal with problems like these in an email?

The limitations of emails are obvious. There’s more room for misunderstandings, because the recipient can’t see the expression on your face or hear the tone of your voice. As the sender, you can’t see how the message is being received and so don’t get a chance to put things straight.
Face-to-face meetings or Skype calls have a clear advantage here. But it may not always be possible to set up a meeting, especially at short notice. So while an email is not suitable for dealing with a full-blown conflict, it’s often a natural choice if the majority of your contact with the recipient is via email and you want to deal with a smaller problem promptly and with a minimum of fuss.

And there are actually some advantages in writing a mail. The one I often hear from learners is that emails give them time to collect their thoughts and then use their favourite tools to find the right words. But there are others, too:

  • If you’re someone who finds it hard to make yourself heard in a face-to-face meeting – whether because the others are louder, faster, more eloquent or have stronger language skills – emails allow you to get your message across without interruption and without being tempted to back down.
  • An email can also be useful as a first step. If you decide that it would be good to discuss the matter on the phone or in person, an email sent in advance can prepare the ground.
  • And you also have a written record – which could come in useful later. 


So how do I go about it?

Rather than rushing into things, it’s worth taking the time to think about what you want to achieve and the best way to do it. What would the ideal outcome be, from your point of view? What note do you need to aim for? Would it be useful to start by saying that you understand the recipient’s situation? Do you need to apologize for anything? Would it be best to just ask for reasons in your initial mail? Those are only a few ideas – perhaps none of them fit and the best strategy really is to get straight to the point.  

Because of all the different scenarios and factors involved, it’s very difficult to provide typical phrases you can use here. But I can offer some suggestions for how to approach the email:

Get your thoughts down. Write down what you want to say honestly – but calmly. Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling at this stage, don’t spend too much time looking for exactly the right wording. Just focus on the general message. 

Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Look carefully at what you’ve written and think about how the recipient is likely to read this message. Where could there be misunderstandings? Where could it come across too harshly? Try to find clearer or more acceptable wordings.

Find the right balance. You’re unlikely to achieve your aim with a mail which is too confrontational. Of course, the language you use should always be non-aggressive and respectful. On the other hand, you shouldn’t sugar-coat your message to the extent that it is obscured, too wishy-washy or comes across as insincere. A good principle to follow here is: Soft on the people, hard on the problem.

Focus on the solution. Check that your mail ends by looking to the future and focusing on the solution. Perhaps you can offer a few suggestions for how to work together effectively in the future.

Check again. Make sure grammar and spellings are is correct. And if you’re unsure – whether about your English or about the way your message comes across – ask for a second opinion from a colleague or for my support.

Everything ok? All that’s left to do is press “send” and then you can enjoy the satisfaction of having taken the bull by the horns 🙂


Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more