Going on the E-Mail Offensive

Help bad e-mail communicators see the errors of their ways. Use humor to drive self-reflection and improved behaviors.

By David Grossman, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO, The Grossman Group

E-mail is one of the most pervasive forms of communications in the workplace today. Pingdom.com estimates 107 trillion e-mails were sent in 2010, with an average of 294 billion sent a day. From our work with Fortune 100 companies and employees, we’re hearing more and more that employees are overloaded by e-mail, and it’s causing them stress.

We conducted research of 1,100 executives, senior leaders, managers, and employees on their perceptions of e-mail and received some interesting feedback:

  • While participants are overwhelmed by e-mail, they believe it is an effective communication tool (84 percent of executives, 84 percent of middle managers and 77 percent of employees concurred).
  • E-mail misbehaviors are the problems that need to be addressed to improve e-mail efficiency (61 percent of executives and 55 percent of middle managers say reinforcing e-mail etiquette would be very effective at improving e-mails in their workplace).
  • E-mail is a multimillion-dollar problem for large organizations. Middle managers said they spend 2.5 workweeks a year just dealing with irrelevant e-mails. And while some companies are fighting back by banning e-mail, mandating time off from e-mail, and developing other communication channels in lieu of e-mail, our research shows these efforts don’t get at the root of the problem.

Stop Misbehavin’

What are the e-mail misbehaviors and how do you get employees to recognize they are committing such misdeeds?

Our research participants rated the worst e-mail offenses as part of our survey. From those results, we developed a lighthearted list of the most obtrusive, inefficient, and costly bad e-mail behaviors.

The 12 greatest (or not so greatest) “Offensive E-mailers” include:

  1. The Motor-Mouth, the back-and-forth replier, filling your inbox with small comments that take time to sort through but rarely add value to the conversation.
  2. The Hermit doesn’t lift his head up from the screen, e-mailing away when a phone call or face-to-face conversation would be better and more efficient.
  3. Reflexive Reply-All doesn’t take 10 second to think about whom need to be on their reply and they fill up your inbox, regardless of whether or not you need to see their message.
  4. Clear as Mud doesn’t structure their communication in a way you can quickly and easily understand why they sent you the message in the first place.
  5. The Town Crier has a large carbon (copy) footprint, neglecting to use the bcc field for large groups of recipients.
  6. The Windbag blathers on in long, drawn-out emails, using many paragraphs to make a simple statement—adding stress to your workday and distracting you from priority work.
  7. The Cliffhanger doesn’t include next steps in their e-mail, generally meaning everyone takes the message as an FYI and nothing gets done.
  8. Captain No-Context peppers you with e-mails that don’t tell you what it is they’re e-mailing about or why it’s pertinent—forcing you to respond with questions and wasting everyone’s time.
  9. The Boy Who Cried Wolf sends routine messages with red flags and urgent subject lines, pulling your attention away from work that’s actually a priority.
  10. The Black Hole doesn’t reply to your e-mail, leaving you to wonder where things stand or if they saw your e-mail at all.
  11. The Gas Station Attendant fills up your e-mail with unannounced large attachments that clog up your server and max out the limits of your inbox.
  12. Old Yeller believes the constant or periodic use of all capital letters and exclamation points somehow elevates their message to a higher status, in spite of its unprofessional appearance.

As a trainer, you know the use of humor can be tricky, yet with the right set-up and delivery, it can be impactful. By presenting the problem behaviors you’re trying to eliminate through humor, your audience has the opportunity to see themselves in the mistakes without feeling as though blame is being cast upon them. They’re also almost certain to see these behaviors in others.

Used well, e-mail is an important communication tool that makes us more efficient and effective —individually and collectively. The “Offensive E-mailers” sheds a fun light on a serious problem, and is something everyone can relate to and everyone can learn from—minimizing the downsides to workplace e-mail and maximizing its upsides.

David Grossman, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an authority on communication and leadership, and helps leaders evolve their culture and demonstrate corporate character. He’s atrainer, speaker, and advisor to Fortune 500 leaders. A two-time author, Grossman is CEO of The Grossman Group (http://www.yourthoughtpartner.com), a Chicago-based strategic leadership development and internal communication consultancy; clients include: Accor, AOL, GlaxoSmithKline, HTC, and McDonald’s.

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