Over the last two years, working with different companies in both the United States and Mexico, I have heard time and again about a relatively new nagging problem for managers: handling their email. According to a poll conducted by USA Today, roughly 25 percent of Americans feel overwhelmed by their email, and I suspect among professional managers this figure is probably much higher. It just goes to show you that with every invention meant to make our lives and work easier come new problems we never anticipated.
Using email to communicate is especially attractive when people are far away from each other, as is the case with international operations. However, as reported by hundreds of managers, this wonderful invention is now becoming the activity that takes most of their time. And inevitably, most managers will tell you that most of the email they receive is either irrelevant or unnecessary.
Why does this happen? One hypothesis is that too many managers copy too many people when they send emails, presumably to “cover their backs.” Indeed, as one young, successful manager told me recently, “You can get into trouble if people who feel they should be kept informed don’t get copied, so you tend to copy too many people.” I don’t doubt that the syndrome of “covering your back” explains some of this, but I believe there is more to the story. In my opinion, too many managers think everyone in the organization should know their opinions, and sending lots of emails make them feel important.
Sending emails not only makes employees feel they are really working, it makes them think they will be noticed more by others. In a way they’re right: Chronic email senders are noticed-like a sore thumb.
The gratuitous email syndrome is of course part of what I call the “overloaded communication world” we now live in. We have voice mails to check, phone calls to return, faxes to read, and each communication event tends to generate many new ones. We are simply overwhelmed.
Communication scholars have studied the overload phenomenon for some years now, and a consistent finding is that it causes stress and depression. Some managers try to deal with this by ignoring incoming messages for as long as they can. Recently, I met a U.S. government official who told me that when he came back from vacation he had over 1,000 emails waiting for him. “I deleted them all,” he told me. “I figured those that were truly important would probably be sent again.” Others with a more fastidious kind of personality try to keep pace with their emails, which means they probably work long hours or use their weekends to catch up with communications.
Some companies have decided that this problem is important enough to develop policies that will help reduce the amount of time people spend emailing back and forth. For example, in some companies the number of people who can be copied is limited. Others are experimenting with new software that can generate automatic answers or prioritize messages according to their content. I personally think managers should be monitored on a regular basis, and those who contribute to the overloaded environment should be punished: “Sorry old chap, we were going to promote you, but we noticed you exceeded your email volume by 100 percent.”
Yes, instead of looking for managers who can communicate, we now seem in desperate need of managers who will not communicate so much. After all, too much communication can be just as damaging to an organization as too little.