Musings from the CU Suite

Jun 12, 2012

Today's Email Dilemma: Be Responsive or Thoughtful

Written by Anthony Demangone

Electronic mail is a common topic of discussion on this blog.  I won't apologize for that.  Email has become a massive part of our workday.  Some would say that our email in-box manages us, rather than the converse.

I've already shared articles on how to manage your email inbox,  rules for email, and another that suggests that if we write better emails, we'll receive fewer of the little buggers.

While those articles are well-written and useful, I recently read "The Responsiveness Trap," by Sarah Green of the Harvard Business Review's blog network.  She puts in words what so many of us feel.  Here's a snippet:


As our inboxes have become more demanding, we have all become less responsive — because we get so many messages it's hard to keep up. But the harder it is to keep up, the more messages ("I just thought I'd send another email asking if you got my first two emails") we send. And the more messages we send, the more we value people who demonstrate "responsiveness." It's a vicious cycle that's now spun out of control, to the point where we now value "responsiveness" so much, it's crowded out our ability to actually respond. We have chosen to spend our time saying, "I'll look into it," at the cost of being able to say, "The analysis you asked for is attached."

We've now reached an event horizon of email where the entire point of asynchronous messaging has been lost. Where once you could send a message whenever you had time, I could reply whenever I had time, and we could both feel maximally efficient, the new responsiveness trap just means that we're essentially communicating in something like real time, without any of the benefits of actually communicating in actual real time. Instead of talking with one person and getting something done, we're carrying on simultaneous conversations with hundreds of people and struggling to get anything done. When I look at my inbox, I hear a cacophony of voices all shouting for my attention, shouting so loud I can't hear what anyone is saying and I start wanting to scream LOUD NOISES myself.

The problem with "responsiveness" is that email then becomes like a hydra — cut off one head (answer one email) and you spawn nine more. The more responsive you are, the more email you receive, and the more responsive you need to be.


Amen, sister.  Amen.

Email communications are fast, and easy to distribute.  With a click of a few buttons, you can ask 5 questions of 15 different people working in three different locations spanning two separate time zones. That's good, in a sense.  A century ago, such communications would have been nearly impossible.  Heck - 30 years ago.

But the emails themselves often create work, create questions or confusion, and lead to more emails. 

Think of it this way.  Let's say your credit union has a ditch digger, Doug.  Doug is a great ditch digger. His ditches are dug as only Doug can dig them.  Forty years ago, Doug's supervisor could say - we need a ditch, Doug.  Dig the ditch from here to there. Fast forward to today.  Twenty different people can ask Doug to dig, via email.  They don't know how many other requests have been sent to Doug.  Or whether Doug is on vacation in Dewey Beach, Delaware.  This places a good amount of strain on Doug.  

And if there are two ditch diggers, Dan and Doug, the more responsive emailer will usually be thought of in a better light.  Even if the other digger digs better ditches, focusing on the shovel more than his or her email inbox. 

I wish I had the silver bullet for emails.  Alas, I do not.  But it still begs the question.  

What do you want to be?  Responsive or thoughtful? Can you be both? Should we demand our colleagues to be both?

Have a great week, guys!