Drowning in Email


I've just joined a new firm where the culture is to keep everyone in the loop by copying the team in via emails. It's beyond a joke and is really time consuming. I'm not sure what is driving this but it's making effective communication really tough. What can I do?

Kate, York

Rob Yeung's Answer:

Email is described by most people as being as infuriating as it is useful and I can fully empathise with your situation. I believe you broadly have two options for dealing with your conundrum. One, you could try to mount a single-handed attempt to change the culture of your organisation. But is that really a productive use of your time? If everyone else simply accepts it as part and parcel of their culture and doesn't see it as a business-critical issue, you're probably wasting your time.

Most organisations have ineffective aspects of their culture. With regards to communication, I've observed organisations in which hardly anyone used email and they simply picked up the telephone all the time – which meant that people were constantly being disrupted by the phone ringing. And I've seen people in other organisations be overly obsessed with producing paper memos on just about everything from important messages from the chairman of the business to what biscuits the kitchen should have in stock.

But such things are, for the most part, simply accepted by people as minor inefficiencies that are relatively inoffensive. So unless there is a broad consensus that it's a serious issue and one that needs tackling, you probably won't gain much traction in trying to change it.

Your other option is simply to play along. Sure, it may irk you that you receive hundreds of emails every day that have little or no relevance to you. But trying to change the culture when it bothers you but few other people simply flags you up as a troublemaker.

If other people cope with it, they'll see you as someone who is unable to blend into the culture – someone who doesn't fit, doesn't belong, and shouldn't stay long in the organisation.

If you want to make a difference to your organisation, might there be more productive areas in which you could invest your time and energies?


About our Expert

Rob Yeung
Rob Yeung

Dr Rob Yeung is a Director and executive coach at leadership consulting firm Talentspace. He is the author of over a dozen career and management books including How to Win and I is for Influence.

Older Comments

Email is a perfectly good way of communicating between multiple people. It leaves an archived history of transactions, and it's easily searched.

Kate has not specified the type of transactional email she gets. If this is a software development/helpdesk type of scenario, I would suggest getting an issue tracking system instead of relying on email. If this is a sales type of scenario, I would suggest the use of some sort of CRM software.

Again, her mail client will have filtering options, and she needs to use those ruthlessly. Sort email by threads, and move entire threads off to another folder for later perusal. Direct one on one communications should be in the inbox, group related threads go into their own folders. Handling large volumes of email is trivial once you start to divide and conquer.

It is not necessary to read all email immediately on receipt. Delay stuff till later, especially threads which you are being copied on for informational purposes.

Devdas Bhagat

Most e-mail programs contain methods for managing your inbox. I would suggest that it's a far easier and more beneficial approach to resolving your issue than trying to change an over-communicative culture. You just may set an example that others suffering the same e-mail inundation may follow.

L Matheson Atlanta, GA, USA

Perhaps you are not able to solve the company culture problem, but you can solve your problem by creating a rule to divert every cc mail to a new folder (copies) and read or delete it according your need. for more details read Managing Your Business with Outlook For Dummies Part III with good tips on e-mail and time management.

Marcelo Thalenberg

If you find email avalanche is a problem, it is probably because you are busy at work. If so, could you try to find an agreement with your direct supervisor that reading (and possibly answering) emails is not a priority compared to getting your job done.

Once that is clear, set yourself the rule of not reading emails before 3 pm. This way, you will resist the urge of wasting too much of your time reading messages that are not essential to you. Moreover, this will help your colleagues realize that email is not a tool for urgent communication and hopefully they will send fewer of them. That could be a seed that progressively orients the culture in the direction you wish.

Emmanuel Gijon, Europe