Click, Send. The Joys…and Pain of Email!

My latest piece is a reminder that email may be wonderfully convenient, but it can also be problematic!

Not that long ago communication was a lot more straightforward.  Not better, necessarily, but certainly easier to manage.  Letters, memos, phone calls (with their attendant pink message slips) and face to face meetings pretty much covered the gamut of how we got our thoughts across, questions answered, sales made and deals done.  Those weren’t necessarily the “good old days.”  There was a painful lag time built in to nearly every aspect of work, a mountain of refined tree products to keep track of, sort and file, and for those of a certain age, the joy of a sleepless Sunday night grinding over what awaited on Monday morning.

Now? A totally different story in so many ways.  Voicemail has replaced pink message slips, with the virtue that everyone but my father leaves real information in the message, not just a notation that they called.  Texting enables quick, informal interactions.  Messaging lets you interrupt someone’s work with a question the minute it comes to you.  Voice and video conferencing enable far-flung offices and colleagues to come together virtually to solve problems and work together.  Sometimes you can have a live one-on-one conversation on the phone or even—gasp!—face-to-face.

There are, of course, pros and cons to each of these communications modes.  Some inject one person’s sense of urgency into someone else’s work stream. Others create a way to dodge a difficult issue indefinitely. Still others make resource balancing and inclusion possible in a way not possible before.  Overall, I’d rather work in this world than the old, but it is a different beast, and it’s often a bit too easy to sort something out superficially without really getting to the heart of a situation.  This last point brings me to what I think, in many ways, is the worst communications method of all: email.

Email? Yes, email.  According to several polls I’ve read, ranging from consulting firm McKinsey to USA Today, the average worker spends anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a day dealing with work and personal email.  The split varies by study, but the result is striking.  Think about this: nearly 40% of a work day is taken up by email reading, responding and sending, not counting what one hopes is thinking time behind the responses and sends.  Don’t get me wrong: email is an essential tool.  It provides a document trail.  It’s useful for transferring information, documents, images, instructions and the like.  Email can be dealt with any time of the day or night, making those Sunday night heebie-jeebies a bit less burdensome.  I live on email.  You live on email.  It’s an ingrained and essential part of business.

But email also has some toxic side effects.  Putting aside the obvious ones, namely that it is a Sisyphean process and a time suck, email creates and reinforces some terrible habits.  Most prominent among these is that it promotes passive aggressive behavior.  A second cousin to Facebook trolling, email can encourage—and according to several studies, it does to a great degree—support saying things that would never be said to a person’s face or in a meeting.  Let’s face it—we all get them: emails that are the electronic version of a rock being tossed by someone hiding behind a bush.  Polite in its wording, hostile or demeaning in its connotation.

Almost as bad, email can encourage laziness.  Using the magic forwarding button, a problem is blithely swept off your desk to someone else’s inbox.  That the issue in question may be stuck in that cycle for ages is often ignored.  In one case I am acquainted with, a person who raised an issue, found it passed around his organization for two weeks, and wound up on his desk with his boss’s request to look into the matter, oblivious to the fact that at the very bottom of the long, long thread, this person’s original question was sitting there!  Just because you pass something off to someone in an email doesn’t mean the problem is sorted out; it just means the problem’s gone from your inbox.

Another challenge with email is the lack of context.  How many times have you read an email from someone and completely gotten the meaning wrong? Be honest now.  You’re in a bad mood, you’re tired, cranky, distracted, stressed, and an email comes in.  You read it and your blood pressure goes through the roof and you immediately write back a scathing response.  Then you reread the original email and find that what you thought it said isn’t exactly what it really did say.  Context is critical.  We are creatures of 5 senses, and absent body language, tone of voice or eye contact, words can mean so many different things, as much dependent on the reader’s mood and attention span at the time as anything else.

If you get an email that seems over the top, my advice is to take a deep breath, grab a (decaf) coffee or a cup of water, then reread it to make sure what you think you read is what was meant.  Then, pick up the phone (or arrange a call if there are time zones involved) and have a live conversation.  Remember that the sender is subject to life and work stresses too, there may be language barriers to be considered, and frankly, most people can’t put thoughts down in writing anymore anyway, so there are lots of things working against you.

So, the next time you sit down to sort out your emails, don’t just do everything possible to get through them as quickly as you can; you may be missing something truly important and worth your attention.  Also, don’t “reply all” unless you absolutely have to.  20 people don’t need to get an email from you that says “OK”.

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