It takes two to tango: email version

Putting the little elves to work.For people who watch the "personal effectiveness" discussion space, one of the favorite topics is that of dealing with email, usually with a strong focus on one person: ideas like Inbox Zero or methods for processing mail.  But there is a bigger issue with email in this person is not the only player: she sends and receives emails from many others, and it is their behavior that affect her just as much as her own actions.

As my mother always said when my brother and I would fight: It takes two to tango.  This is the e-mail version of that.

Why is it that in some organizations, email is overused and abused, while in other organizations email seems to be just one tool among many?  What is it about the behaviors and expectations and standards that encourages one set of behaviors or another?  Of course, I don't have the magic answer, but I have a few examples of behaviors I see (and I find myself doing): 

  • All my work assignments and updates arrive via email.  Meeting invitations too.  Thus, I must spend most of my time in front of the email client. 
  • But I'm busy.  Just look at how much email I've sent!  Dealing with email makes me feel like I am working, when all I might be doing is reading and writing emails. 
  • I'm sure I have done that.  Yep, here is the response to your question to my email, which was embedded in another thread about something completely different.  Yes, but have you actually done anything about it?
  • It's too easy to send email instead of walking around the corner to talk.
  • It's certainly easier to send out an email request-for-comments to the team, rather than convening a team meeting (look at their schedules!) to discuss the topic.  But we should be able to resolve the topic in that 30 minute meeting!
  • The last three times I tried to talk to her, she was busy and told me to send an email about it.  So I just connect via email.  But you know, she hasn't responded to anything in the last few weeks.
  • I've got some work on my plate that I don't know if I can resolve.  I'll just send email status updates, instead of asking for help or admitting that there might be some difficulty with this work.
  • Argh! I don't want to do that work.  I'll just leave it in my inbox with everything else.  Or I'll just send a non-committal reply and ignore it.

Looking through these, I see more of the outward signs and evidence of the problem, rather than the underlying causes of the email disease.  Why does the leadership accept the loss of productivity created by these behaviors?  Why do the individual contributors accept work in this kind of environment?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, particularly if we can find the deeper reasoning.

And then you have the reinforcing element: email ping-pong.  If you live and work in an environment where there is an expectation to respond (to email) quickly, all the behaviors above just multiply upon themselves.  How do you know if you are in this environment?  Does everyone have a smartphone with the expectation of "dealing with" email immediately?  Do you and your team spend the vast majority of the day in front of their email, rather than doing the work about which they are writing emails?

[Image credit: "Putting the little elves to work" by 10ch]

2 Comment(s)

Joe Raimondo said:

I think the analogy and practice of writing or posting on someone's "wall" will be adopted as the default mode of asynchronous communications. Email is parallel to the social stream, and the social stream will predominate. It will be a generational divide at first. but eventually the means for exchanging notes, documents, and C&S info will fall into the social lifestream (all duly protected and secured, of course.)

I have yet to live in a business where the use of IM and other social media was a large element of the day-to-day process, but I like to imagine that a lot of the mundane stuff in email could get shifted here: you don't need to archive lunch invites beyond 1 pm - or even know that they existed - and a lot of the other ping-pong could be derailed. But then, ping-pong could happen via IM (or walls or what-have-you) just as they do in email. I think the other issue is simply: why are people disinclined to go talk to each other?

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