One of the big issues in any modern and especially technology company is the unending avalanche of e-mails everyone sends and receives. In itself there is nothing wrong with it, as sending email is easy, cheap and creates a feeling that one shares information. However, what is being often shared is a killer of attention and productivity. Companies tend to use various distribution lists with tens or hundreds of people on them and it is naive to believe that information shared with five hundred people over e-mail will be read, understood and acknowledged by everyone. Very often the information is not even relevant for majority of recipients and then it basically acts as a SPAM (unwanted mail). I know it is nice to “be in the loop” and to know about everything but there is a price to pay.
One of my favorite quotes is a statement by Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize for Economics) “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Every leader should therefore always balance the amount of information she needs to stay informed while not being overwhelmed by it.
So what are the tips and tricks of e-mail communication?
1. Think before you send e-mail at all
Is e-mail really the best way how to communicate this particular information? Very often it is just fine, but keep in mind that the most natural way how to spread the word is to talk. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to pick up a phone or go to the colleague in the next cubicle and talk? Especially in cases when you expect discussion or questions, e-mail should be used just as a heads up with clearly stated that you don’t expect response but that you will talk with the person at the nearest occasion.
2. Think twice before you send it to bigger distribution list
Always think before sending emails to bigger distribution lists and if do send it then make it clear whether it is just FYI (for your information) or whether you expect action to be taken. Always assume that big portion of the people on the list may not read the e-mail, may just skim through or may not understand the meaning.
3. If you receive email sent to a distribution list think ten times before you press “reply all”
There are very few occasions that merits hitting “reply all” button. Imagine that you are in a room with three hundred people and the speaker at stage shares some information (sends e-mail) you would then without much thinking stand up and shout some message back. And imagine that every other person in the audience also shouts back. Not a nice picture, so why do it using e-mail? There are very few situations when replying to all is warranted. When working in global organization consider that there are cultures where this behavior is just fine, but there are other ones where this is seen as annoying or impolite.
4. Never ever use BCC
BCC (blind carbon copy) is a tool that should never be used if one wants to promote culture of transparent communication. Why would anyone want to use it? If you send information to more people then put the recipients to “to” or “cc”. That way everyone understands who got the message and who still needs to be informed. Imagine how would use of “bcc” translate to spoken communication. You would go around your team and to some of them whisper the information. No one would be sure what you told and to whom. Does it make sense? Some of the worst examples of “bcc” abuse are putting to “bcc” boss of a person you communicate with. This behavior breaks trust really fast.
“bcc” is a good tool when distributing information to people who shouldn’t know about each other, like external partners or customers. However, there is no place for this tool in intra-company communication. And yes, I understand some of the technical implications, security considerations, anti-SPAM advantages and other stuff described in related RFCs (for those interested check out RFC 2822 and RFC 5322), but at the end this is a blog about leadership and not about technical solutions 🙂
5. Use common sense and treat people with respect
Most people don’t even realize that they would never communicate in person the way they communicate over email. So the simplest thing is to provide feedback or set up couple of informal guidelines “netiquette” of proper behavior on the net. And of course lead by example. If people realize something they do can be annoying to others they will change. Typical example might be the “bcc topic” mentioned above. One of the primary reasons why people use it even in internal communication is to prevent someone to press “reply all” and spam the whole team. By doing this you are essentially compensate your lack of leadership skills by technical solution. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to sit down and explain to your team that pressing reply all is often disrespectful to all the recipients who get spammed? And yet many prefer to use technology over having a conversation with their team.
6. Don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote without sending it
And finally, to justify the headline of the article, don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote rather than sending it. I personally do this several times a week when I realize that the informational value of the email I just wrote is close to zero, is better to communicate in person, or that the audience is not right one for what I want to say. If you tend to provide your thoughts on every single topic and reply to every single email you get, you are simply spamming others with information of no value that no one needs or requests, you appear micromanaging and you just waste time of your team by providing too much value (to borrow this term from Marshall Goldsmith) so change it! Delete email before you send it! Learning this habit will improve your image as a leader in the eyes of others.
I know this is a controversial topic as many of us couldn’t live without email (including me) so FLAME ON!