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February 20, 2008

Ask Professor Feiner: Too Much Email

Michael Feiner ’66
Professor of Management and Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Ethics Fellow
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Dear Professor Feiner: As my career has progressed, the number of emails I get has increased exponentially, and I’m having trouble getting to all of them. Any tips on how to manage this?

There’s no question that email offers great efficiency in passing on information and in asking for information, and this efficiency leads to productivity — a good thing.

But the sheer amount of email exchanged at companies is an overwhelming problem. Emails have come to replace voice-to-voice and face-to-face transactions and are making the workforce feel anonymous and impersonal. Bosses complain that they get too many emails, and their people, ironically, complain that these same bosses send too many emails.

There is no good solution. What I tell leaders in my consulting job is that if you’re trying to make decisions around something or if you’re trying to coach people or if you’re trying to motivate, inspire or galvanize people through email, you’re wasting your time.

Until leaders recognize how counterproductive and demotivating the email experience can be at times, this isn’t going to get fixed.

There are some tricks that can help:

1. Set some ground rules to help employees decide which conversations should be handled via email and which should be handled face-to-face or phone-to-phone.

2. Restrict your email to a certain number per day per person.

3. Don’t use email for those occasions when you’re trying to motivate, inspire, galvanize or energize.

4. Ask an admin to vet emails and try to handle the less important ones themselves, passing on the most important ones to you.

5. If the matter being discussed is urgent, put “urgent” on it — and if this is a crisis, and you really need an answer immediately, put that in the subject line. Sometimes people cheat with this, but even if people are playing it straight 70 percent of the time, this will very often get you to the most critical emails during the day, and the others you can defer.

Professor Feiner is frequently called upon by alums for advice. If you have a suggestion for a question, please drop us an email at media@gsb.columbia.edu.


by Osifo Akhuemonkhan | February 20, 2008 at 3:14 PM

Another way to efficiently handle huge amount of emails is to encourage proper use of the To and CC rows on emails. At my company, employees are encouraged to include in the "To" row, individuals who are required to act on the email, and relegate all other recipients- who just need to be aware of the email contents - to the "CC" row. That way we can each prioritize on which emails to read first.

by Mussaad R | February 21, 2008 at 12:36 AM

Another helful hint is sorting by sender, this way you can eliminate reading similar/one line emails also, you coul get a blackberry, just don't tell anyone you have it!

by Ryan Petersen | February 21, 2008 at 9:43 PM

Batching is another good technique, although it takes a real commitment. Checking your e-mail only twice a day prevents you from being constantly interrupted. Every time you get interrupted from an important task, it takes at leasat a minute or so to regain your bearings. If this is happening every time an e-mail arrives, you will spend more time reorienting to your task than you will working on them! The entrepreneur Tim Ferriss has written a great manifesto about this strategy for managing e-mail: http://www.changethis.com/34.04.LowInfo

by Rita Gunther McGrath | February 22, 2008 at 4:37 PM

I have some more golden rules for email: #1 No email should be longer than one screenful of information. Save your "War and Peace" impulses for literary outlets. #2 One topic per email, please. Then when it's handled, you can file it. #3 Please use meaningful subject lines. If you write me with a subject line that says "Vitani delighted - wants follow up immediately" that tells me a lot more than "Thursday's meeting" and I can get through a lot more mail right away. #4 Parallel to #3 - when a long email chain has changed topic, change the subject line! So if a meeting confirmation has evolved into a detailed design discussion, don't still call it "Will 3/16 work?", call it "new insight from Andrew on client requirements". #5 Don't ever put anything in an email you wouldn't like to see on the front page of "Public Offering!"

by Tony Romani | February 29, 2008 at 6:29 PM

I think all ideas expressed above are more than great. Maybe this would encuorage the Administration to start setting up some CBS organization-wide guidelines for email. Rather than wait for others to do it, we can start the process today. I am talking rules and enforcement but we can start with 5 simple rules. 1. Use To field for people who need to act. CC for those who need to be aware. 2. Batch your emails and expect batching by others. 3. No email longer than a screen. 4. Use meaningful subject lines and update them when needed. 5. Use URGENT, ASAP or ACTION NEEDED when appropriate. Anyone on the reception end?

by W.N. Sanabria | March 27, 2008 at 12:48 PM

There are 2 huge problems that are largely ignored: 1) the common practice of forwarding emails - I frequently receive a request for action with multiple messages appended. You need to read all of them to figure out the essence of the communication. 2) The "Reply all" option - Not only do we copy people that don't need to know, but in some cases people we don't know at all. I've seen sensitive confidential information send outside the company by this method.

by Adrian Jones | March 27, 2008 at 2:42 PM

I think one of Feiner's key messages may have been lost: email isn't good for motivating and inspiring, which is best done face-to-face, but too often bosses hide behind an "attaboy" by email without ever saying it in person, thus contributing to email clutter. One exception is when praising a team and copying the bosses up the chain of command. When I have a good client meeting, I spend 10 minutes writing out an email that does some cathedral-building and calls out specific individual contributions. I then copy the most senior people--who usually aren't in our team meetings. They love getting that sort of email and inevitably respond with more attaboys. The amazing thing is that by simply saying the team is doing well, everyone starts to think it.

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