Altruism and Email Overload solutions

Posted on April 4, 2010 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Organizational Solutions

While checking online for tidbits on Email Overload, I bumped into an article in The Advocate titled Managing E-mail Overload: Reducing Volume by Being Mindful of Others, written by Stephen M. Nipper. It shares a variety of useful tips, but its main emphasis, as the name implies, is on considering the impact of the mail one sends on others, and practicing restraint by avoiding Reply to All, writing concise messages, etc. Which makes perfect sense: if we send less mail, and it is easier to read, surely that will reduce email overload to everyone’s benefit.

But it isn’t so simple. This angle on the Information Overload problem essentially relies on altruism: taking steps to benefit others. Without going into a discussion of human nature in general, we must consider that email senders act out of no small degree of self-interest – at least in a corporate environment they do. After all, we all know what happens to useless email we might send, such as that generated by abusing Reply to All: it gets deleted unread, just as we do to it when we receive it. So why do intelligent knowledge workers send out mail they know will not be read? What’s in it for them?

What’s in it for them can be any of a number of things. They may want it known that they’ve been awake, working, at 2AM. They may want to create a paper(less) trail, to prove they’ve said something, in case of later accusations. They may want to excel at the “publish or perish” game. They may want to show the intended recipient that their boss has been copied (as I’ve described here). But primarily, they want to be noticed; not sending the email won’t give them this, and in many organizational cultures, going unnoticed can be (or is perceived as) definitely risky. So people are always willing to apply solutions that improve email overload at the receiving end – their own end – by processing their Inbox faster, since this gives one a selfish benefit; but they’re less than eager to adopt etiquette standards that reduce the flow they send out. Being mindful of others is good for the group, but in the pressured competitive environment of the corporate world it is not necessarily a high priority for the individual.

If you doubt this, suggest to a coworker that they stop sending out their status reports by email, and put them on some web repository instead, where anyone in need of it can go read their activity update. Good luck.

This is not to say that you can’t get people to improve their etiquette and curb their outgoing mail flow. You can, as I can attest from experience. It does mean, however, that your solutions must be designed to resolve the aforementioned conflict of interest.  The simplest way is to deploy them top down in the hierarchy: management must credibly convey that one will be judged on the impact on others of one’s outgoing mail. This changes the rules of the game: mindfulness of others may seem much more attractive when your group manager has made it clear that it will be rewarded (or its absence penalized). This is why in all the email overload programs I’ve deployed I’ve made sure the etiquette definition part is conveyed as management expectations, unlike the Inbox-processing training. With a little guidance from above, altruism may yet flower in your organization…