Most managers are doing far too little to mitigate the destructive and wasteful effects of e-mail misuse. Like a B-movie, the e-mail monster keeps growing larger and consuming more time and resources (“E-zilla: The Insatiable Beast”). Some of the more common abuses I hear about in my workshops are:
CC-ing the World” – far too many people are copied on far too many messages that are either of remote or some interest or a classic case of CYA (cover your bum).
Hiding Behind E-mail – difficult news or tough feedback is cowardly delivered through this impersonal channel.
Flaming E-mails – insensitive, inflammatory, or negative comments are fired off with an aggressive or hostile tone that wouldn’t be used in a personal conversation – like some mild-mannered people who become aggressive drivers behind the wheels of their big honking SUVs.
Over Reliance on One Message/Channel – important decisions, “discussions,” or directions are fired out and everyone is expected to give this one e-mail the immediate attention and urgency the sender feels it needs.
Stringing the Pieces Together – recipients are expected to follow a long and convoluted discussion in reverse chronological order.
With the huge amount of time being sucked down the e-mail sinkhole each day, teams can get a fast and large return on their time investment by getting together – in person – to establish e-mail protocols. Here are a few ideas your team might consider:
Get an idea of how much time everyone is currently spending each day on internal versus external e-mails.
Set a target for the number of e-mails you would like everyone to have to deal with each day.
Have everyone do an analysis of their inbox for the next few weeks and categorize the e-mails as to type, importance, relevance, etc. Aggregate those individual logs to see the overall trends.
Agree on the criteria for when e-mails are not appropriate. This might include whenever an issue is sensitive or difficult, has potential for conflict or misunderstanding, needs discussion, calls for collective brainstorming, personal feedback, etc.
Agree on the criteria for categorizing e-mails by level of urgency, information only, decision needed, who should be copied, etc.
Learn (or review) how to lead and participate in effective meetings with agendas showing the purpose (information giving, decision required, problem-solving, input needed, etc.), desired outcomes/objectives, decision-making process to be used (command, consultative, consensus), and time allocated for each agenda item.
Periodically review your team’s e-mail usage by asking everyone what you all should keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to ensure e-mail is an enabling, rather than enslaving, tool.
I have just scratched the surface. Please send me (Jim.Clemmer@Clemmer.net) your pet peeves, protocol suggestions, and experience with taming the e-mail beast.