EmailThis post will explore the idea that when people who work for you send emails complaining about each other, or trying to make themselves look good at the expense of each other, it can be best to ignore these emails. We’ll also cover some other situations when it’s best to avoid hitting Reply right away.

Complaining emails

If you’re a manager and person A copies you in on an email to complain about person B, should you reply? If you do, you’re likely to cause one of the following:

  • If you reply in favour of person A, person B will feel unsatisfied and may resent you as well as person A.
  • If you reply in favour of person B, person A will feel unsatisfied as you are ignoring their concerns.
  • Any reply may create further emails by one person justifying their actions, and if this goes back and forth the emails will be occupying three people’s time.

On the other hand if you ignore the complaint, the result could be:

  • Person A realises that the complaint is not that important and doesn’t pursue it further.
  • Person A and Person B work out the issue between themselves.
  • It turns out to be a legitimate problem or gap in responsibilities that gets worse and more expensive to fix after you’ve ignored it.

Of course the right thing to do is go and talk to each person and guide them to resolving the dispute together. But would you have time for this? How about if you had 20 people to manage? What if one of them was a serial complainer who comes to work for their enjoyment of political game playing?

Ask: Would there be any consequences if I ignore this?

One way of deciding whether to reply or not is to ask yourself: Would there be any consequences if I ignore this? If you don’t intervene and the consequence may be someone heading down the wrong path and a lot of work getting done on the wrong thing, the answer is ‘yes’. In this case you need to intervene and give direction to make sure the priorities are being worked on and your projects stay on track.

If on the other hand, this email is just a complaint similar to two kids arguing over whether apples are red or green the answer may be ‘no’. Intervening with a reply in this scenario will just fuel future complaining between the two people, as they now believe that you are reading these emails and care about the complaints. The best thing to do here is not to reply at all.

If you are going to intervene – do it in a way that does not fuel further complaining

Once you’ve decided that there are consequences and you do want to intervene, do it in a way that does not fuel further complaints. Your reply to any complaining email should be completely impersonal; just stating facts about what the priorities are and what you are expecting each person is working on.

E.g. The current priorities are XYZ. Person B will work on task 1 and 2 while Person A will work on task 5 so that we can be ready for the deployment on date X.

This doesn’t apply to non-complaint emails when someone is waiting for something from you

For non-complaint emails, i.e. where someone is genuinely waiting for something from you before they can continue their work, you should reply. If you don’t have the answer and won’t be able to get to it for a while, set the expectation of when you will be able to provide the answer. If you ignore these kinds of emails, the sender will get frustrated thinking that you don’t care, when in fact you do care and are working on it but just don’t have the answer right away.

When you read an email and you feel anger rising – don’t reply

It’s almost certainly better to not reply right away to anything that makes you feel anger rising when you read it. Remember that there are 3 parts to communicating a message: body language, tone, and the words. Email loses body language and tone and these factors account for the biggest part of the message being communicated. I find that 100% of the time when I wait and read it again later I want to reply differently, in a smarter and more helpful way than when I first read the email. Remember that your good reputation can be undone very quickly with some negative comments.

Co-located team – less emails may be more efficient

When you have a close team and are co-located, it’s better to just turn around and ask the person behind you rather than sending emails back and forth. The problem will get worked out a lot quicker. You have a big advantage in efficiency with a co-located team and should play to the strengths of this rather than reply to complaining emails which will foster an unproductive culture.

No 3rd email rule

I came across an article that mentions a simple rule to prevent email wars. This would be a good thing to implement in your team if you regularly come across these situations. The rule is:

  • Person 1 sends an email
  • Person 2 responds

If either person is not happy there is no third email sent; the two people must have a discussion face to face or over the phone. The idea is that this will prevent lost productivity that results from emails going back and forth.

Further reading on when not to reply to emails:

No 3rd email rule –


What are your tips on when not to reply to emails?