How to be strategic about responding to work e-mails

Responding to work e-mails

E-mail, at least to me, is a total boondoggle. Responding to work e-mails is an even bigger boondoggle. Let’s start with a couple of basics:

  • There are no established ‘norms’ on how to handle e-mail
  • E-mail represents work, but it’s often not actually work
  • Inherently, it’s a distraction

But, there’s 89 billion (probably more) work e-mails sent every day on the planet, which essentially means that every single person alive sends 11 work e-mails per day. If you then factor in that only about 23 percent of the world actually has a full-time job, pretty much everyone that does is sending about 50+ e-mails per workday (and again, probably more than that).

At this point, we’ve already presented a heap of problems related to e-mailing at work, and we haven’t even gotten to the next phase of issue: the inherent dichotomy of e-mail length. What does that mean?

  • Too long: Detailed (good!), but no one reads it (bad!)
  • Too short: People might read it (good!), but lack of detail means a slew of reply-all for clarification (bad!)

Basically, no one knows how to deal with work e-mail effectively; heck, no one really even understands that it’s all a giant game of “push” vs. “pull,” which is the psychology that traps us all as we rush around screeching about Inbox Zero.

Back in April 2013, The New York Times wrote an article called ‘The Anxiety of the Unanswered E-Mail,’  which basically went through a bunch of reasons why people don’t answer work e-mails anymore. Business Insider summarized said article and these themes emerged:

  • We don’t understand pacing: In actual face-to-face conversation, there’s a flow to the pauses. Nothing like that has been established for e-mail as of yet.
  • It’s easier to avoid a favor asked for then to just say no: Yep, that’s basic human psychology.
  • It’s easier to ignore something you don’t really want to deal with: Yep, again — basic human psychology.
  • We want to write a thoughtful response, but we don’t have the time: Typical ‘Temple of Busy’ garbage, yep.
  • Replying just creates more replies: Yep. Seen this?

Alright, so … here’s where we net out right now.

  • E-mail mostly sucks and people don’t know how to use it.
  • There are a half-dozen good reasons to ignore and avoid most e-mails you get.

All this said, why would someone actually respond to an e-mail at work, then?

Because it comes from someone higher up the chain

Ding, ding, ding. Have to argue this is No. 1. E-mail is a representation — perhaps the purest representation possible — of the power structure of your organization. That’s the same reason why ‘out-of-office’ is complete horse shit. If you slap up an OOO and head to grandma’s house in Vermont, you bet your sweet ass you’ll be replying all within 14 seconds once your boss throws everyone into some Chinese fire drill to prove their own value. That’s basically the how of the modern working world — as in, “How do things happen?” They happen at the intersection of “Hierarchy” and “Unclear priorities,” typically. E-mail is those two things rolled into one.

Because you want your voice heard

This is an important one, but it’s a little nuanced. See, here’s the basic deal: human beings are social animals. They need affirmation and reciprocity and they need to know their work is being seen as positive and good. Unfortunately, most companies are not set up in a way where they can give this to people. (Rather, they give them a paycheck and assume that’s good enough.) Here’s what happens because we suck the ‘human’ element out of most workplaces:

  • Disengagement (you’ve all seen those stats)
  • Gossip/petty behavior/politics
  • Invented priorities

That last one is important. It kinda goes like this: “I want to feel valuable, but the organizational structure won’t let me feel valuable.” (See also, from the above: Everyone is ignoring your e-mails.) So, to feel valuable, here’s what most people do:

It’s all about looking for a sense of purpose, but instead of finding it within the work or the clarity of the central product/service/idea, you find it by making it up. That happens every second in most workplaces. People want their voice heard. So they respond to e-mails to “get their two cents in.” That’s what leads to the e-mail tree video above. That’s why Slack is a $2 billion company, give or take.

Because you want to be critical

There’s a necessary degree of criticism in any workplace culture, and because it’s easier to be critical via e-mail than it is face-to-face, people love to sling turds all over the joint over their Outlook or Google accounts. “I like it, Sam, but don’t you think the colors are a little harsh?” Instantly Sam is on the defensive and probably doing less-than-stellar work, but Ol’ Sender don’t care. My man’s probably in his office patting himself on the back and saying, “Yea baby, leadership…”

How to be strategic about responding to work e-mails

Because you want to start a fire

We ignore this all the time, but it goes back to the point above: even though ‘relevance’ shouldn’t necessarily be something you chase, most people still do. One of the easiest ways to be seen as ‘relevant’ in any work setting, aside from rushing past people talking about how it’s your “busy season,” is to be viewed by some higher-ups as a “problem-solver.” The easiest way to become a “problem-solver” without any real foresight or actual skills is to basically create problems for your team, send everyone into a tizzy, then race in and claim to have “solved” said problem so that you can get the credit. This is essentially how most middle managers work, and the easiest way to start a fire is via e-mail. You’ve all gotten the Friday 3:30pm “… thinking we need a new direction with some of the McGregor work…” e-mail. I don’t care what profession you’re in or what title you have; you’ve gotten some variation of that e-mail. E-mail basically exists so that messages like that can be sent.

Because you are totally unclear on priorities

MIT has done research around the setting of organizational priorities; in essence, almost all senior leaders they worked with couldn’t — could not — identify the top three priorities the CEO had defined for the organization. That’s a staggering statistic, but also makes complete and absolute sense at every level. If you’re totally unclear on priorities, you know what happens? It’s pretty simple.

Everything becomes a priority.

You know what really happens when everything is a priority?

Nothing is truly a priority.

And that’s why you think it’s fine to fan the reply-all flames or throw e-mail turds around for much of your workday: in reality, you have no idea what the actual priorities are, so you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be chasing. Why not hide behind your desk and sling some sauce at the underlings?

How it should work

First off, you shouldn’t use e-mail. E-mail, by definition, keeps information in select pockets, which reduces productivity. You should use a mix of e-mail and collaboration software (i.e. Slack, Trello, etc.)

This is what e-mail should be for:

  • Longer summaries of key points that people can save and check later
  • Checklists on deliverables
  • Cover Your Ass stuff for Human Resources when Bossman Barry tells you your skirt looks good

Instead, we use it in 127 other different ways, almost none of which are productive at all. But in the grand discussion about replying vs. not replying, short vs. long, bullets vs. headers, etc… it all comes back to this:

If you’re doing any of the garbage above, just stop, take a deep breath, and go talk to the person (or people) who you need to talk to. That’s easier than what you’ll create by firing off an e-turd.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. “but Ol’ Sender don’t care. My man’s probably in his office patting himself on the back and saying, “Yea baby, leadership…” hahahahahah! Greatness!

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