E-Mail Frustrations

Academics need some rules and some discipline, writes C.K. Gunsalus.
September 21, 2009

A series of related questions....

Dear Survival Guide:

What is it with these administrators who do not respond to people at all when receiving suggestions or requests? Or, if you send in a suggestion, simply respond, “thank you,” with no feedback. Then, they wonder why morale is low. Duh.

Dear Survival Guide:

My dean is a black hole. You send the guy an e-mail and you never hear anything back from him. Yet he’s happy to send me stuff by e-mail and you can bet he expects me to respond to him. What is with these guys?

Dear Survival Guide:

I serve on a committee that requires a lot of time to review proposals for internal funding. Of course I’m glad to participate in the decision-making of the university and I see this as part of my service obligation. On the other hand, I’ve never heard back one single time about what was funded, or why. I’ve never been thanked for my efforts. I don’t need a parade, but a simple recognition that this took time would be nice.

Dear Survival Guide:

When I moved to an administrative position from my faculty role, I thought I was ready. I knew what I wanted to accomplish and I thought I had a contribution to make. I’d even read your book and it didn’t scare me off. What I was totally unprepared for was the volume of e-mail and people’s unreasonable expectations about how fast I should respond. In this job, I’m in meetings during most of business hours. I spend ridiculously excessive hours doing my e-mail. It’s never enough, and what really gets me is the people who send a repeat request or act offended if I haven’t responded instantly.

These questions all have two things in common, and neither is crappy administrators. What they have in common is the value in looking at things from another perspective and the topic of e-mail overload.

Let’s talk about e-mail as a professional tool. Back in the days of yore, most requests came to administrative offices via typed letters on paper. Production of a typed letter usually involved dictation or longhand drafting, transcription by a typist into a draft that was reviewed, edited and returned to the typist for putting in final form. A clean copy was produced, signed, copied and put in the mail.

This was a process that built in some time for reflection and polishing of words and ideas. Creation of the final version and transmission happened almost exclusively during office hours, and a record of the request and its disposition was usually filed at both ends, and often at multiple other places as well. It was usually possible to follow the trail of paper through time and learn a reasonable amount about the history of a situation by perusing a physical file. Responses were expected in days or weeks, which again built in a period for contemplation and consideration. Office staff had at least a general idea of what the boss was up to, because all the paper flowed through some central person who could play traffic cop, sending copies to those affected by the actions described. Most requests flowed through a chain of command, stopping at intermediate offices along the way.

Fast forward to today. Now, most requests arrive via e-mail, at all hours of the day and night. They’re often dashed off, may well be incomplete, intemperate and informal. Instantaneous responses are expected and often demanded. Decisions conveyed by e-mail might or might not get copied to all affected, and the staff might never learn of commitments made until they get angry e-mails demanding to know why the money or space or ... whatever, has not appeared as expected.

E-mail flattens organizations and in the informal workplace of most colleges, just about anyone might feel completely comfortable e-mailing the president with a request. The president might well write back. The volume of e-mail even for administrators of small programs can be overwhelming. That load is what leads to no responses, two word non-responses and other frustrating interactions. We’ve gained some by these changes, and we’ve also lost some ground.

Even more fundamentally, e-mail is a narrow pipeline through which to communicate, entirely bereft of body language, visual cue, and intonation patterns. It’s immediate and thus easy to send on impulse without careful consideration. Not only common sense, but a consistent body of research demonstrates that misunderstandings multiply and arguments escalate when conducted by e-mail. E-mail negotiations tend to come more often to impasse, be less creative and to leave more value on the table. Nothing delicate or controversial should ever be done by e-mail. Even more emphatically, no argument should ever be conducted over e-mail nor bad news delivered that way. (What do you do? Walk down the hall to talk to the person involved, or if at great distance, pick up the telephone and call. Even the small addition of the voice and speaking patterns can help prevent a problem from blowing up out of control).

There are some other characteristics of e-mail that require careful thought concerning its appropriate use. Because senders are often in their own private settings, they can feel safe and comfortable committing thoughts to writing that are often better be left unsaid or kept private. That and the ease of transmission can lead to inappropriate exchanges that can damage relationships and reputations.

E-mail is neither private nor confidential, especially if you work at a state-supported institution, which makes them subject to freedom of information requests. Even in private institutions, most employers own the e-mail systems and have the right to inspect their contents. E-mail travels through a variety of servers, each of which might have its own policies about backups and security.

I once investigated a sexual harassment allegation for a university where the local IT guy had backed up personal e-mails every night and archived them so there were two years’ worth of personal exchanges to be examined. That was appalling for everyone concerned, including me. If it’s not something you wouldn’t want a lot of people to read, don’t put it in e-mail.

E-mail is easily forwarded, so something you think you are writing privately to a friend could end up in 100 other mailboxes without a moment’s thought or labor. The dread e-mail chain/mass mail that never dies and can clog your in-box has its roots in that “feature.”

E-mail is easily misaddressed, as oh so many have discovered to their dismay, from the president thinking he was privately writing his mistress and instead sending the message to all faculty and staff, to the lawyer intending to address outside counsel but instead reaching a national listserv describing a sensitive personnel situation, complete with names and Social Security numbers.

So what’s to be done?

The first step is to realize that e-mail is a tool. All tools can be used for good ends as well as abused. A hammer can be used to build a house just as it can be used for causing damage. A tool is supposed to serve its user, not the other way around. This applies equally to phones, PDAs, voicemail and videoconferencing. Think about how this tool can be used effectively in your job and work from there.

The second step is to establish boundaries and communicate them to relevant communities and parties. Boundaries are harder to establish with e-mail than with practically anything other than time. Think through where it’s an asset and where it’s not. Work with the others around you to define some standard procedures, and share those -- broadly. One simple boundary to establish and maintain is to turn off the new e-mail sound so you only go check your e-mail at times that suit your schedule and other obligations.

One of the best bosses I ever worked for told me, on the first day, that his policy was never to read an e-mail longer than one screen. This didn’t sink in until I’d been waiting for some time for his response on a difficult task he’d assigned me. Appealing to his assistant to figure out why I hadn’t heard back, she suggested that maybe my response had been longer than one screen? Sure, I said, it was a complicated problem. Then it was deleted, following his policy that he doesn’t read e-mails longer than one screen, she said. Aha. I took all that beautiful work and turned it into a short position paper, complete with all resource materials and submitted it on paper. I got my response the next day. My old boss isn’t unique; given the nature of the medium, people often tune out on lengthy messages.

In an administrative position, be it director, dean, head or chair, it’s almost always useful to create an official address to which work-related e-mail flows. It can also be useful to post or announce a standard response time. An example would be: “routine requests sent to dean@college.edu can expect a response within two to three business days.” Using such an account can create an official office record of requests and responses, keep the appropriate staff in the loop, and contribute to sharing the e-mail load. Several people may have access to it, directing inquiries to the best person to handle each one.

In teaching, it can be handy to create a course address to which students should address questions, concerns, assignments and requests for extensions. Similar announcements of expected response time can be promulgated. At the very least, this can reduce the number of e-mail messages you get that begin “Hey Professor, I forgot to look at the syllabus. Can you shoot me the reading assignment?” Look at the training involved as helping your students to build useful professional skills in for the workplace.

The hard part comes next: All official business e-mail that gets sent to your personal e-mail address should be forwarded to the official address, with a copy to the sender indicating that’s where it’s gone and the standard two-day (or whatever) clock is being applied.

Whoa, you say. This will upset people and there will always be those who want my personal e-mail address to deal directly with me. Of course. This is where the reminder that e-mail is a professional tool comes in.

Professionalism requires that business gets transacted officially, effectively and with the proper tone. That includes good manners and good records. Remember the red face test advising care with any words or actions you wouldn’t want your mother to know about or to see on the front page of the newspaper? Conducting your work through e-mail is one of the main danger zones for bad conduct these days, given its ubiquity, ease of use and deceptive feelings of privacy and informality.

A simple rule of thumb to help keep your e-mail professional when you are composing messages is to have on hand some stock greetings and closures that are appropriate for your work relationships. (Using typing expansion software can be an aid here.) Write your message, then go back and “sandwich” it between a cordial greeting and closing.

E-mail sent to the official address should be acknowledged and answered. Committees that submit reports should be thanked -- and where appropriate, told the final outcome following their work. Administrators who have staff should both delegate appropriately to that staff and share relevant information with them -- which an official e-mail address facilitates. An office e-mail address can also reduce the struggle over messages that get appended in staff signature blocks that are not appropriate for official business.

None of this will eliminate the e-mail that requires action by the decision-maker. It will, though, help reduce the burden of stuff that doesn’t take the administrator to handle, and share the load more effectively. And there’s nothing wrong with training everyone that an instantaneous response isn’t in the cards. Sure, it’s more bureaucratic and more cumbersome. It also might lead to more thoughtful and considered decisions. Look at it this way: how much that goes on in our institutions truly needs a response in 10 hours, let alone 10 minutes? Surprisingly little.

Some things of value were lost from the time when administrative interactions took some time and thought. Many things were gained when we could speed up routine inquiries and handle them on the fly. Someplace in between is a reasonable balance. Viewing e-mail as a tool and then using it as one, playing to its strengths, is both sensible and a route to surviving both personally and professionally in what can be hard and demanding jobs.


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