No One Read Your Email

Your Email Backlog

A long time ago when I was an enlisted Marine, my platoon commander told me “Email is taking over. People don’t walk down the hall to pass word.  We’re Marines. This isn’t good.”  I didn’t use email for work in the year 2000. I was a grunt. But, now I get it.

I’m not at all under the impression that this matter hasn’t been addressed before, but it is still worth a valuable lesson.  At my last company I would see my counterparts’ or subordinates’ outlook accounts with an inbox number well into the hundreds...of unread emails. I couldn’t believe it.  I took a ton of pride in the fact that mine inbox never EVER had more than 10 unread messages and was clear at the end of the day.  How was that possible?

I reduced the amount of lists I subscribed to, made rules for specific personnel to go to either another folder or junk, and I deleted emails unflinchingly and often.  See, it was not uncommon for people on a 4 day on 3 day off rotation to come in to at least 200 - 300 new emails if they had decided not to check their email over their weekend.  On a workday you might receive 75-100 per day because everyone was catching up on their unread list, forwarding information that was now old, or “replying all” unnecessarily.  I’m purposely leaving out an inordinate amount of other intangibles that could lead to a never-ending backlog, but the question remains “How many of these emails really matter?”

Everyone Wants To Be Heard

I would say 40%-50% of emails would fall into the category of people simply wanting to demonstrate that they did something. I know, because I was one of them.  I later realized that I was hoping that people would categorize me as valuable, knowledgable, or “on top of things.”  The truth is I didn’t need to send emails to do that.  I was also emailing my team way too much.  I began to consolidate all the emails with pertinent information that I received and pass it on, all at once, when we were all together.  I did this with the hope if sparing them from taking off-work hours to try and stay current in the ever-changing operational ongoings.  I wanted to bear the burden and rightfully so. The problem was I made it a point to emphasize that part of my leadership style was understanding that “information is power” and “you never want to be the last person to know something.”  So, then they would show up to our pre-shift meetings with the same information I had consolidated for them. They were showing up earlier and earlier to work trying to illustrate they were right there with me.  This was admirable, but not the intent.  The sending of emails and the attempts to keep up is a negative cycle, with misplaced intentions, and simply not sustainable.

Throttle Back

 When you send the 15th work related email of the day or the 100th text to your work group chat -ask yourself why you are sending it.  Do this for those you work alongside and those that are in your charge. Coach them and help them gain the perspective that they don’t need to overdo it.  Less IS more. After all, if everything is a priority, nothing is priority. It is your responsibility as a leader to sort through the noise, pass only the legitimately important information and let your people be with their  people. 

I had a few peers that would religiously avoid email during their off time.  I didn’t know how they did it.  They allocated that time off for their families, their hobbies, or just to simply recharge.  When we would cross paths during shift changeovers I would fill them in, almost begrudgingly, to make sure they were up to speed.  When all was said and done many of us performed at the same level and it was our leadership and communication styles that made us distinguishable, not our email practices. 

There is No Replacement for Face-to-Face Communication

One of my former peers Eric always, and I mean always, would make multiple trips to my department to talk face to face.  He always began with “Hey man, how are things going?”  I’m not huge on niceties in a fast paced environment, but he did an excellent job of being concise after our initial greetings for the day.  This was a practice I told him made him stand out tremendously; in a great way of course.  I sometimes would be at shift turnover with my peers who were heading home for the night only to later read emails they had sent with relevant information once they were already gone!  I could never rationalize why they didn’t tell me face to face when we were physically together.

Sometimes we fall into a trap where we believe  that because something was written it can serve as a sort of safety net.  There’s a certain pride you feel when someone questions if you passed on information, or completed a task, and you have the digital proof to back it up.  However, aside from that engaging face to face will always be the best practice in terms of communication.  The same way we sometimes misinterpret texts or try to analyze how it’s being said can happen just as easily in emails.  The benefit of body language, facial expressions, and the ability to ask follow on questions is simply too valuable to overlook.  The visual cues are plentiful.  Additionally, we all too often believe that writing an email is the same as having a conversation.  It is not.

“This is a People Business”

This is everyone’s favorite cliche phrase in any almost any business.  Yes, most thriving businesses and impactful leaders share the characteristic of being truly involved with the experience their customers or subordinates have.  Far beyond the numbers, we all have our own unique spots in the world.  We are all trying to succeed in our endeavors, be happy, and minimize problems and stressors.  While work is a part of everyone’s world, it is not likely not the only meaningful aspect of people’s lives.  You can never tap into this or build long standing relationships if you prioritize the digital methods we are all accustomed to, rather than taking the time to just talk to someone. 

Make the effort to go talk to people.  Be approachable.  Shut your laptop.  Hide your phone.  Look at people in the eye.  Don’t prepare what you will say in return.  Just listen. Oh and instead of asking “did you see my email?” just assume they didn’t.