The research organization Radicati Group estimates that the average corporate email user sends and receives about 122 emails a day. Of course, many of us, and certainly people in executive positions, get far more than that. Why has there been such a proliferation of emails? How has this relatively new invention invaded our lives to the extent that, according to McKinsey & Company, 28% of the average workweek for managers and professionals is now dedicated to reading and answering email?
Pure spam aside, the reason is simple: It’s the evil “cc” option.
When someone copies a large group of people or hits “reply all,” they’re giving themselves cover. Once you hit “send,” nobody can come back and say, “You never told me,” or, “You should have asked me,” or, “Why didn’t you keep me informed?” That person was copied, so that person knew—or should have known.
Now the sender is off the hook, and everyone copied on an email is collectively responsible for whatever decisions, instructions, or information lie–unread–at the bottom of a long email thread. It isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t practical, but it’s now an all-too-common operating assumption.
Take a good look at your own email inbox. How many messages are directed to you personally, and how many are there because you’re on a distribution list? Are those emails relevant, or are they the ones that you quickly delete or stash in a folder? Is it clear why all the people on the list need to be kept in the loop on the topic of each email?
Now ask yourself whether people assume that you’ve been informed of things simply because you were copied on an email. Do you find your peers and subordinates using phrases like, “But I told you about that last week,” when in fact, the “telling” consisted of your being cc’d (along with many others) on an email?
If the answer is yes, then you have some work to do.
If your email inbox is cluttered with hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of unread messages that are routinely sent to a large group of people, take some time to evaluate how important and helpful these emails are to you.
For example, you need to know things that pertain to your weekly schedule, or things that pertain to upcoming events or deadlines. But the content of many other emails you receive might simply be nice to know. The monthly update on the book club, for instance. The newsletter you thought would be interesting to receive but have never read.
And then there’s spam—content you don’t need at all. Your email system may already sort some of this email for you, but you can probably weed out worthless messages even better than it can automatically.
If some regular emails are not important to you, either filter them out or ask the sender to take you off the distribution list. If, on the other hand, the content is relevant to you but it’s obvious that email isn’t working as a means to get the information to you, take these two simple steps instead:
Tell your colleagues that including you on a group email list as a cc recipient isn’t necessarily the best way to get you involved in certain contexts. Be specific about what those situations are, and distinguish them from the ones where just being cc’ed is still okay.
Offer to be available for direct, one-on-one communication—a meeting, a call, a text message, or a personal email. Then let your coworkers know that if they haven’t heard back from you in, say, 48 hours, they should send you a nudge. (If there’s a deadline, then sooner, of course.) And remember: Any response on your part, even a simple “received,” will indicate that you’ve read or intend to read their message.
Any time you send an email that requires a response, let the recipient know in the first words of the subject line: “RESPONSE REQUIRED.” If it’s time sensitive, then say “TIME SENSITIVE” or “RESPONSE REQUIRED,” with the deadline you need them to meet. And ask the people you deal with frequently to do the same: they should let you know when something requires your immediate attention, too. It’s a give-and-take.
It’s also a good idea to ask people to update the subject line whenever they change the topic of conversation. You should do this yourself. It’s easy to skip over the 15th back-and-forth email with a subject line of “Re: holiday party”—but what if that 15th reply was actually the beginning of a new conversation that should have been titled, “Important Budget Question: Response Required”?
Many of us have gotten in the habit of treating an email thread with someone as if it were an in-person conversation, where you can start on one topic and move to another without saying, “Now I’m going to change the subject.” But an email conversation requires just that sort of blatant signaling. If you’re going to change topics, begin a new email trail with a new subject line, or at least change the subject line of the email trail you’re on.
This article is adapted from Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace by Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene (due out from HarperOne, September 29). It is reprinted with permission.