We receive more email than ever.
By some accounts, we can each expect 120 to 150 work-related emails per day in our inboxes. (I’m not even counting personal messages.)
This means that you unwittingly spend much more time than you realise in your inbox. How much? In July 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) released a report titled “The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies.”
MGI found that knowledge workers on average now spend an astonishing 28 per cent of their work time managing their messages. What’s worse, that number is growing at a rate of 15 per cent per year. Do the maths. It’s pretty scary.
In fewer than five years, your inbox will double unless something changes. And you think that you are deluged now. You might be thinking, “So what?”
What am I supposed to do? Send intraoffice memos? Revert to the Mad Men days? Many people (over)rely upon email because they know of nothing else.
They can’t imagine a world without it. Plus, email works, right? Well, not so fast.
The research behind bad communication
As I discuss in “Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It,” email frequently fails as a tool for effective conversations.
Generally speaking, text-based messages give the appearance of one-to-one, in-person communication, but it’s a false one.
That might seem like a counterintuitive claim, but plenty of research has found as much.
Kruger and Epley wanted to determine if people were as good as they thought they were at discerning the true intent of a message.
Epley and Kruger had participants interpret two different types of messages:
- in-person (re: talking)
- text-based (re: email)
The results were fascinating. Nearly four times in five, subjects accurately interpreted the former. Not bad, although twenty per cent of the time we’re not communicating clearly. When it came to the latter, though, the numbers crashed.
Participants were only able to accurately determine the sender’s tone in 56 per cent of the emails received. In nearly half of the messages, the recipient didn’t know that the sender was using sarcasm and humour. But it gets worse: most “senders” had no idea that they weren’t making themselves understood. In short, they didn’t know that their messages were not (fully) received.
Email and text messages lack subtext, not to mention non-verbal cues essential to true understanding. Many times, a five-minute conversation obviates the need for a fifteen-email chain.
If we want to communicate more effectively at work, then we need to stop relying on text-based methods like email. This begs the question: What to do?
The (partial) solution: a three-email rule
For a few years now, I have argued for a radical addition to the pantheon of email “best practices.”
Yes, it’s time to start following a three-email rule — and invoking it. Put as succinctly as possible, after three messages, it’s time to talk.
In my email signature, you’ll find that very rule:
Make no mistake, though: This rule is useless unless I invoke it. This means sticking to my guns and resisting the temptation to pen a quick message. Sure, I’ll make an occasional exception. Think of it as more of a guideline than an absolute.
Do I still receive too many emails? Have a few people been taken aback by my refusal to engage in email “conversations.” No doubt, but the squeeze is well worth the juice.
My clients, partners, and friends know now my strong communication preferences. A few have even “borrowed” my rule themselves. Steal away.
Phil Simon is the author of “Message Not Received.” His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, and elsewhere.
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