4 strategies for handling 9 types of annoying email

Want to get a better grip on

email that wears you down?

 emailIt’s not just that you’re getting too much email.  A bigger deal is the way it can ruin your mood, contribute to a toxic environment and change the structure of your work life.

 From so many coaching clients, I hear growing frustration about how other people’s poor email etiquette can drain your energy. Would your days be better without email abuses like these?

1.   An endless stream from the boss.  Some people use email not so much as a way to communicate but as a form of thinking out loud.  “Sandra” said that in a few hours her boss might send four or five emails, with changing views about a single topic, to her whole team. Sandra understood that he’s an external processor and was using stream-of-conscious emails as a way to examine critical issues.  But nobody knew which message would be safe to ignore, so the boss’s ruminations created chaos.  Fortunately, Sandra  convinced him to adopt a new habit of exploring his thoughts in a single evolving document that he holds for a day or two before sending it along.  But other bosses aren’t so willing to change.

2.   No time off.  Often it’s not just the boss who doesn’t know how to stop the constant email flow.  In too many offices, it never seems to end, and you’re left with no time to recharge.  “Amanda” complained about “nonstop, 24/7 emailing, and then follow-up texts to ask, ‘Did you get my email.’  Because everyone does work from home, even in the evening and on weekends, the work/personal lines have blurred. Now everyone is always working.”

3.   Prose that makes no sense.  There’s a difference between being informal and being incomprehensible.  A lot of people are sick of receiving colleagues’ unedited messages.  Unclear messages can lead to misunderstandings or require time to sort out. And recipients may feel a bit insulted when you don’t take the time to proofread and be clear.

4.   Big boring text blocks.  Lengthy paragraphs, full of too much detail, are tough to read and don’t work well in email.  Effective messages:

    • Start with a descriptive subject line.
    • Are brief.
    • Use dot points or another outline format, and
    • Can be easily skimmed. 

5.    Over-copying.  People are tired of sorting through messages they didn’t need to see in the first place. It’s so easy to hit “reply all,” but it creates such waste in the longer run. 

6.    Tone-deaf prose. Let’s remind each other that it’s difficult to perceive the tone of words you send via email.  Humor can fall flat and simple declarative sentences can sound rude or mean.  The problem is exacerbated when insensitive senders engage with over-sensitive message recipients.  So you senders: reread your messages, particularly when delicate issues may be involved.  And you readers: lighten up — it’s probably not about you. 

7.    Negativity.  In addition to folks who sound more harsh than intended, there are others whose negative commentary is even more wearing.  One category is the whiners, who find little ways to tuck complaints into message after message.  Even more troubling are folks who write in anger.  Email is not a good medium for expressing emotion, and angry messages can brew up storms in an instant.  Whether it comes like a firestorm, or a drip, drip, drip of pessimism, negative email can reduce creativity, block innovation and even make people sick, 

8.    Forgetting how to call or visit.  When anger or other emotions are involved, and when issues are complicated or delicate, email is not the best means of communication.  Some things are difficult to write in a few quick graphs.  A better approach may be to pick up the phone or walk down the hall.

9.    And those annoying little things: Aside from the bigger issues, some people don’t want you to send:

    • Responses, when you haven’t really read the original message.
    • Too-long signatures, particularly those with inappropriate inspirational quotes, dense and unnecessary legalese, and logos or other images that arrive as attachments.
    • Automatic out-of-the-office responses when you’re briefly away, and
    • Chain mail, even if it’s funny. 

There’s no easy way to reduce the burden of email, but four strategies may make it more manageable

1.  Develop protocols.  You’re not the only one who feels this way.  You and  your colleagues can save time and aggravation if you work out an agreement on techniques and etiquette for shaping your email exchanges.  Consider topics like:

    • Message formats, including length, outline style, and use of subject lines.
    • Distribution preferences, like when it’s OK to send a mass cc.
    • Timing standards, including possible weekend or evening email blackout periods, when it’s OK to hit “send” only in the event of emergencies.
    • Polite behavior, like expectations for proofreading.

2.   Know what it’s good for.   Email habits can improve mightily when the whole team understands the best times to use it.  Email is a great communication tool when:

    • You need to send basic, timely information to multiple people, but complicated interaction isn’t required.
    • You want to announce or confirm simple but important details, like meeting times and logistics.
    • It’s important to recap meeting conclusions and assignments.
    • You want to succinctly share data, or report on action items.
    • You’re distributing attachments or sharing on-line resources.
    • You need a record of your communication.

3.   Change how you approach your inbox.  When you check for mail constantly, you keep interrupting more important tasks and you waste time switching gears. You may be more productive if you don’t look at email every few minutes.  Some experts say the most effective way to process email is to batch it, like by working through your inbox only at designated times throughout the day.

4.   Don’t let it get to you.   You can’t control the barrage of email from other people, but you are in charge of how you respond to it.  If you feel like email is driving you crazy, maybe it’s time to notice your stress level, and make some changes.  Deep breathing and other mindfulness exercises are among the paths that might help you bring things down a notch.

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in business etiquette, email, workplace issues Tagged with: , ,
2 comments on “4 strategies for handling 9 types of annoying email
  1. Raghavendra says:

    Thank you very much Bev for your interesting and important guidance about handling emails in office. This was the biggest problem that I faced in my last job where I have spent a whole day just reading emails,trail mails and the responses. While it is quite easy for two people to just make a call and set things right, they just feel comfortable to sit in their cosy chairs and type emails assuming that everyone will understand.

    The most absurd thing is people writing emails with a intention that it should be read immediately and then they call your secretary to ask “I have sent an email,pls check with your boss and let me know”.

    Thanks for your insights. Good reading

  2. Thanks much for your comment. I’ve noticed that email cultures vary widely from place to place, and can make a big difference to stress levels and productivity

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