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Resist the seduction of e-mail

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Have you ever wondered how your e-mail habits measure up at work? If not, you should. You won't find "e-mail use" as a formal part of a performance appraisal, but we do make judgments on how our co-workers choose to communicate with us. E-mail misuse is getting noticed at work.

Indeed, many e-mail sins are innocently committed. We are easily lured into e-mail's seductive powers. The attraction, for some, can be like a moth hovering precariously close to the flame -- we just can't resist sending and checking.

One antidote to e-mail's charms is to appeal to our rational side; to help direct our thinking outside the inbox. So consider these 10 temptations of e-mail -- a tidy package of quirks and behaviours that should take your inbox thinking to a higher plane.

The Temptation to Send

This temptation is based on the mistaken belief that people will read everything that you send and that everything you send is worth reading. It's a sort of narcissistic tendency that only the e-mail communication channel can satisfy. Such e-mail messages can run the gamut from "I loved this, so will you," to the cute homilies and kind thoughts for the day, such as "please send to 10 friends, or you may have a bad day." Many of us can receive a dozen or more of these messages every day and wish we didn't. Know your audience before you hit "send."

The Temptation to Respond

E-mail seems to create an emotional or social need to somehow fill a communication void. Common mistakes include sending a "thank you" response to acknowledge receipt of the e-mail. It gets worse when the "you're welcome" e-mail arrives in our inbox. Another common mistake is sending the appreciation e-mail: "Thanks for sending me this information; you can be assured I will give it my full attention." This message serves to encourage more sending just to get the response. Reserve e-mail responses for information requests.

The Temptation to Broadcast

At times, this issue defies logical explanation. Distribution lists are a convenient timesaver when critical information needs to go to several employees. The real issue here is: which employee for which issues? If 10 people from a list of 100 need to receive a message -- e.g. "send in your forms" -- why does everyone get it? Or better yet, why are "all employee" e-mails then forwarded again by some managers with their own direction to read it because it's important? Don't broadcast unless you're certain everyone on your list needs to know.

The Temptation of Disrespect

Lapsing into this habit relates to a lack of basic politeness in e-mail discourse. This may be a byproduct of both personal style and the e-mail device. Some people do not recognize that e-mail messages can come across too strongly if not modified for tone through the writing. There are some people whom you may want to keep at e-mail distance just because of this sort of behaviour. We practise civility in person and over the phone, so why not in e-mail?

The Temptation to React

Some e-mail is composed in such a terse, brusque manner that we tend to react emotionally first, think about it later. While we are emotionally charged, our fingers are doing the talking over the keyboard, and we triumphantly poke the send button, signifying the "back at you" response. The satisfaction generally lasts about five to 10 minutes, and then we come to the realization that this might not have been a good idea. Worse yet, we face several hours worth of damage control. Save it and sleep on it before you decide to send it.

The Temptation to Hide

Have you ever received an apology by e-mail? Have you ever found out that your department is closing its doors through e-mail? There are those among us who have actually been terminated by e-mail. These types of e-mail are simply bad form and tend to expose the sender's reluctance to communicate with us in person. Worse, if the sender is a senior executive, these antics can colour our attitudes toward the organization.

Some people have related to me that these types of messages can be a serious catalyst for seeking other employment. When we have to deliver a negative message, especially to someone with whom we don't have a good working relationship, it's important to keep in mind that e-mails with negative content can be like bombs -- very explosive.

The Temptation to Mutiny

Do you ever feel that the "ping" that sounds when a new message arrives puts you into a dilemma?

Should you interrupt your work or break your concentration from a meeting or phone call?

Do you ever wonder why a colleague or co-worker sitting two offices away prefers to send you an e-mail, rather than dropping into your office?

Or why someone has suddenly copied you into a set of e-mail threads?

What we are reacting to is our need for some human contact in a wired world. Try answering some e-mails by telephone or in person.

The Temptation of Addiction

There are those among us who prefer e-mail to all other forms of communication. They are enamoured with the technology and mesmerized by their keyboards.

For example, some people will attend a meeting, but pay no attention to what's going on, instead waiting for the e-mail to come out to explain it all. Others see receiving e-mail as a badge of honour and a demonstration of their importance. They'll draw attention to themselves purposely by handling their e-mails while commuting on trains, planes and (heaven help us if they're driving) cars.

Remember that e-mail is just one way to communicate at work, not the only way.

The Temptation of Attachments

This one comes straight from the annals of "If you can, do so."

At a recent workshop on e-mail, I was asked: "What would you do if you received an e-mail with 25 attachments?" Luckily I caught myself before responding: "Delete." My answer: I'd ask the sender next time to warn me about an e-mail bomb like that.

Somehow people have the notion that while e-mails should be short, attachments are a free-for-all; a bonus gift in which everyone will surely want to share. Attachments should not be considered a standard feature for every e-mail. Be vigilant about sending extra information -- make sure the receiver needs it.

The Temptation of Overwhelm

If there is one message to shout from our office rooftops, it is that it's normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially if you are receiving the current North American average of 48 e-mails a day. The feeling becomes more acute as volumes increase and reaches almost cosmic proportions at 80 to 100 a day.

Sometimes people feel that it's their own fault that they can't handle or absorb the information, that something must be wrong with them. Rest assured, there is nothing wrong. My research shows that 25 e-mails a day is a reasonable number to receive and manage -- we just aren't there yet.

Learn to prioritize e-mails -- deal only with the relevant items that have been sent to you personally and delete the rest of them without prejudice or regret.

Each of us may be guilty at times of falling into one temptation or another. Still others may regularly impose on co-workers with certain temptations or a combination. It would be rare indeed to find someone with a perfect score.

E-mail is alluring, but it is also potent. Misuse can amplify our messages in alarming ways. Fix your e-mailing behaviours before others do it for you. Practice thinking outside the inbox.

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Christina Cavanagh is a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., and author of Managing E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox, to be published in August.