The Thousand Faces of Email – 2. Launch, Forget, and CYA!

Posted on July 24, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Continuing the series about the numerous unplanned uses to which email has been put since its humble origins in the sixties, let’s take a look at a shady pair of practices: using email to pass the buck, while covering one’s back end in case of trouble.

The wrong kind of delegation

Paper Planes

That people use email to delegate tasks is hardly surprising;  many tasks need to be delegated by their nature, after all. Things become interesting when the delegation is unwarranted, but is pursued notwithstanding. It turns out that email is especially handy for this situation. Before email, you’d have to visit or call the victim and ask them to take on the work, in which case they could point out on the spot that it was not their responsibility. With email, you merely hit Forward (if the task came in on an email), or compose a new message and send it on its way. By the time the recipient read it, you’d be conveniently unavailable for rebuke; and even if the recipient decided to push back, all you’d need to do is pick another candidate and resend. Eventually someone would accept the chore.

This practice has become so common that it’s used even when it’s blatantly wrong. In one company I was assisting with its Email Overload a manager told me the anecdote of an engineer who, asked what he’d do if he got a “machine down” piece of bad news from the production line, answered “I’d send an email!”

Machine down, mind you, is as urgent as it gets in manufacturing… but the guy couldn’t be bothered to take any action except shoot the responsibility off to someone else!

The seriousness of the implications was summarized by a perceptive senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces, who was quoted in a newspaper article as saying “Officers send orders in ‘launch and forget’ mode and so feel they’ve discharged their duty. They don’t verify that the officer to whom the task was assigned can execute it, whether it is too difficult and whether it will be done. They send [email] and feel a kind of CYA”.

This guy got it right: using email to “launch and forget” a task also gives you the CYA component, since if the recipient fails to execute – often because your mail got buried in their overload – you have proof that you did tell them to act. And indeed, CYA is reported in various companies I advise as a cause of much email. In particular it can increase FYI addressees on the CC line – as when copying the boss just in case…

How can we stop this practice?

Like many bad email habits that afflict organizations, “Launch and forget” and CYA emails are a symptom of much larger problems that lurk in the dark side of organizational culture. If people trusted their coworkers (and, especially, their bosses) they wouldn’t need to spam them with FYI messages just to cover themselves. If people were serious about their responsibilities they wouldn’t launch action items at others and forget about them.

These deeper issues of culture and trust are the cause of many other difficulties organizations grapple with, and solving them, though not easy, is well worth pursuing. Not every Information Overload intervention is assigned the resources, time and managerial bandwidth this would necessitate, but those that are have a much better chance of achieving long term benefits. Think about it!


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