It takes leadership to make people do brave things. But does it take leadership to reduce email overload? Motivating them to take risks, to stand up to formidable odds, to storm an enemy fortification, to jump out of an airplane – that is where a leader can have an impact for sure. By contrast, it hardly takes leadership to make a person do something that is neither brave nor difficult, and is in the person’s selfish interest: nobody requires a leader to lead them to eat strawberry ice cream, or to enjoy a weekend with their children, or to take a pleasant nap in the warm afternoon sun. Why would they? It’s all upside, after all – what’s not to like?!
So here is a bizarre exception, a situation where a great deal of leadership is necessary to make people do what is inarguably in their selfish interest. When it comes to email overload in an organization, leadership is practically a necessary condition for solving the problem.
The problem is ubiquitous and widely recognized: employees and managers in every organization on the planet suffer from a horrible overdose of incoming emails, text messages, WhatsApp alerts, Facebook updates, and so on ad nauseam. The outcomes are dire indeed, as this problem decimates people’s productivity, quality of work, creativity, effectiveness and quality of life. Everyone complains about it… yet very few seem able to do something serious to eliminate the problem on their own.
Not that it’s all that difficult: after all, email overload is the result of a frenzy of activity that is in large part unnecessary and useless. Much of the email inundating people’s inboxes is generated by their coworkers (and vice versa) for no good reason, and it would be in everyone’s interest to simply send less of it, restoring the tool to its original purpose from the 1980s: send important, useful messages required to perform the job at hand. It would also be in everyone’s interest to calm down and stop reacting to every incoming message alert as though it were a fire alarm.
And yet nobody sends less, nobody calms down, nobody cuts back. Not on their own they don’t.
The reasons for this are deep, and have to do with undercurrents of the organizational culture that involve mistrust, missing norms, over-competitiveness, and so on. Put simply, it’s a prisoner’s dilemma: if I send less email to my coworkers they will certainly benefit, but will I? What if they keep sending out more mail – will they get noticed and rewarded, while my altruism condemns me to obscurity?
And this is why in this domain, leadership is crucial. Consider the prisoner’s dilemma again: the only way to make people cooperate in this game is by changing the payoff table. If cooperation – sending less email – is rewarded, then people will send less of it. If sending silly pictures of cats to a large distribution list will get you a reprimand in your annual performance review, you will find better use for your time, and your recipients’. But only the group’s manager, who sits in the hierarchy above all the senders, can effect such a change in payoffs. Employees are very finely attuned to sense their boss’s desires, and if the boss makes the switch and truly believes in an email reduction program, they will react instantly.
Furthermore, the higher that boss in the organization, the wider the scope of his or her impact. A department manager can affect the mailing behavior within the department, but other departments will continue unaffected, impacting the first manager’s employees too. For a complete improvement, the general manger or CEO must be on board; that affects everybody inside the company. This is why the late W. Edwards Deming, the originator of Total Quality Management, used to refuse to consult at a corporation unless the CEO invited him in person; he knew that the culture change he was promoting would be certain to fail without top level leadership.
Once we accept that email overload is a cultural problem, it follows that you want to have senior management sponsorship for the solution program. You can still do a lot without it – teaching people how to process their inbox more efficiently, for one thing – but for a true transformation you want to recruit managers as high up as you can. Not an easy task, but well worth the effort!
Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.
Email addiction and mental health go hand in hand. Email addiction is a major cause of stress and hence poor mental health. There are plenty of organisations to help you cope with well documented sources of addiction such as alcohol and substance. But what of chronic email addiction and mental health? Compulsive checking of emails is often hidden behind phrases like ‘my clients/colleagues expect me to be on-line’, ‘it’s part of my job’, ‘what if I miss an email from a key contact’. Are these reasons justified or just a cover up for deeper problems such as email addiction?
We all have extraordinarily busy periods when it can be prudent to check your email frequently and outside normal office hours (eg year end, major project closing, takeover bid etc). For more normal days, what does checking your email every few minutes really tell us?
Maybe you work in an email dependent culture where people rarely walk and talk. Maybe you feel insecure, anxious or lonely. In that case it is symptomatic of a mental health problem. Tackling email addiction should be a key priority for every organisation and not just during mental health week.
At a personal level click here to check your level of email-addiction. Then use the top tips below to start breaking the cycle.
Still addicted, then seek more help. We can help with email addiction. For the mental health aspects talk to a specialist.
If you work in an email dependent culture then perhaps it is time to make colleagues aware and especially the potential cost to their well-being and mental health.
Hilary Clinton used a personal email account rather than her White House one. Now 10 Downing Street admits to automatically deleting its emails after 90 days. As a result some are suggesting that instant electronic messaging systems which self-destruct are the solution like SnapChat and Slack. But are they?
For any technology to succeed and add value to the business, requires that users are properly trained. Sadly though, normally 80% of our time and budget is spent on the technology and its implementation and only 20% on providing the user with adequate skills to use it properly.
How many of you have ever been educated to mange your use of email, little own deploy good email etiquette which would reduce the need to email ping-pong and email gaffs. In Mesmo Consultancy’s experiences it is less that 20%. So little wonder we often find ourselves confronted with consequences of an email we wish we had never sent.
It is naive to think that we can delete an email. Once sent it is there for ever, either stored on a server as News International and Sony Corporation found to their dismay, or still in the recipient’s inbox. Far better is to adopt slow and quiet email. Think before hitting send. Reflect and ask yourself ‘what if someone found this email’.
Without proper training and a change in organisational culture instant electronic messaging communications systems (like Slack and SnapChat) will be doomed to the same failure and disasters as our current version of email.
Need help to change your email culture to make it work for, rather than against you? Call Mesmo Consultancy to hear how our email training has has helped others. Alternatively, watch our video on email etiquette.
Tags: 10 Downing Street, Deleting emails, email culture, email etiquette training, Email gaffs, Email ping-pong, Email training, Hilary Clinton, Mesmo Consultancy, News International, Slack, SnapChat, Sony Corporation
Here are the articles and blogs which caught our attention in October.
What have we missed. What did you read which caught you eye?
Many, business people receive 100 (or more) messages a day and spend 2 to 3 hours a day on email related activities, consuming 20 to 30% of their business day. Not surprisingly, many complain of suffering from email overload
Email, with its myriad of features, functions, and capabilities, combined with its high volumes and constant interruptions, has become one of the most frequently used yet continually challenging business applications for today’s workers to navigate.
So, what is the solution to managing email overload issues? My research has found that the key strategies to deal with email overload fall into three broad approaches: organizational, technical, and behavioral.
1) Organizational approaches
Organizational approaches to reducing email overload incorporate the use of acceptable use policies as a way to set organization-wide rules for the appropriate, and inappropriate, use of email. These approaches are also referred to as email etiquette or netiquette, and focus on teaching people to use email more appropriately.
These can be employed differently depending upon the organization, ranging from being enforced as formalized policies, communicated as strongly suggested guidelines, or expressed as cultural norms of expected behavior. They establish a common set of values, expectations, and behaviors around the use of email, and work at the macro level, reducing the email overload burden for everyone.
2) Technical approaches
Technical approaches to reducing email overload leverage specific features and functionality in the email system itself as ways to reduce email overload. This approach has traditionally been the primary focus area for most email training programs with the goal on improving an individual’s fluency in the email system and thereby allowing people to use email more efficiently.
Research has found that there is often little formalized training on the use of email, as most people are (incorrectly) presumed to already be email proficient. Even those who deem themselves email savvy are often only familiar with a small fraction of their email system’s features and capabilities. A technical approach can yield significant improvements in individual email skills, resulting in large reductions in email overload.
For Outlook users, click here to check how savvy you are with your email software.
3) Behavioral approaches
Behavioral approaches to reducing email overload focus on improving the knowledge, actions, and behavior of individuals. This approach incorporates the areas of media competencies and email processing (triage) techniques and focus on teaching people to use email more effectively.
Media competencies include topics such as when email is an appropriate (or inappropriate) form of communication, how to build high-quality email subject lines, and writing structured message bodies. email processing (triage) encompasses focuses on strategies on how to best scan, analyze, and organize your messages. Behavioral approaches, the way you interact with email, are critical to reducing email overload.
Research has found that you must focus on improving skills across all three of these areas (Organizational, Technical, and Behavioral) in order to make the greatest improvements in your email skills and the largest reduction in email overload.
About the Author
Dr. Michael Einstein is a full-time business technology professional for a large multi-national corporation.
His doctoral dissertation was on the intersection of email processing skills, email overload, and technology training. He is very active in email overload research. For more information see his recently launched website which contains a wealth of resources to help others learn to better manage their inboxes and reduce their information and email overload levels.