What Do CIOs Need To Know About Long Emails?

It turns out that long emails are bad
It turns out that long emails are bad
Image Credit: Tamera Clark

As CIOs, despite having access to some of the most sophisticated communication tools available, most of us still do most of our communicating via emails. Not just a few emails, but a whole lot of emails. When we send an email out, there is a very good chance that the person that we sent the email to will reply to it. We may then reply to their reply. They will then probably reply to our reply to their reply. And so on. You can see how this back and forth thing can really start to build up. It turns out that all of this email exchange stuff is actually really bad for CIOs to be doing…

The Problem With Long Emails

I think that all CIOs can agree that resolving complicated issues over email can feel both frustrating and taxing. However, it turns out that cost of email reliance may be more far-reaching than CIOs previously knew. New research now suggests that compared with face-to-face conversation, email not only makes resolving an issue more difficult, but can also worsen a CIO’s performance on subsequent tasks. Not only do we have less motivation, but we also suffer cognitive deficits. Most CIOs hate those long back-and-forth emails. I’m pretty sure that we all have at least one colleague who, if you start to engage them on email, will write literally essays in response. The problem with this is that you have to respond with another essay. And that back-and-forth can really tire you out.

The researchers were interested in measuring the toll this type of email exchange might be taking on CIOs efficiency. The researchers devised four experiments in which hundreds of paired subjects were divided into two groups. In each experiment, the first group was asked to perform a complicated task during a face-to-face encounter. The second group was asked to attempt perform an identical task using email. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pairs who were working face-to-face were more efficient. In the first experiment, negotiating a sales strategy in person took six minutes on average to achieve consensus, while the emailing pairs took over 20 minutes on average.

CIOs understand that email is a great tool for sending information. The challenge comes when you need to arrive at a shared understanding. In situations like this, face-to-face communication works a lot better. The study also showed that the participants who resolved issues over email ended up performing worse on subsequent tasks. When they were asked to spot grammatical errors in a news story about young entrepreneurs, the email communicators who were now working as individuals ended up catching 19% fewer errors than those who had communicated face-to-face. The participants who were emailing communicators also did 49% worse solving a series of logic problems, and 20% worse on a test of their complex reasoning.

Solving The Long Email Problem

The researchers ended up concluding their study with a field test that compiled data from employees in real work situations. They asked more than 200 workers to report their daily levels of text-based communication in an end-of-the morning survey, along with their daily goal progress and work engagement at the end of the day. The results of this study showed that while a big dose of text-based communication had no effect on those working in jobs with low problem-solving demands, it turns out that people working in jobs with high problem-solving demands felt less excited and energetic about their work at the day’s end. The result of this was that they were less likely to report feeling they had made progress.

CIOs understand that email creates a record of a conversation, and often feels easier than trying to schedule a meeting. This can be especially true when people are working remotely or in different time zones. CIOs can feel as though they would rather just type an email and get it off of their desk. CIOs have to realize that they often use email simply out of habit without considering the hidden costs.

What are our alternatives? We can schedule regular meetings so that outstanding issues can be resolved with less effort. And when caught in a nightmare email chain we need to learn to be mindful of the toll it extracts before moving on to the next task. We can take a break, or do something that’s not important, something that’s relatively mindless compared to something that involves a lot of decision making on our part.

What All Of This Means For You

CIOs generally have very little spare time. It seems like our schedules are always full and we struggle to try to get everything that we need to get done, done. When we need to ask someone to do something or when we need information from someone, we will often send an email. However, it turns out that this can be a dangerous path to take. There is a very good chance that our emails may be answered, and then we’ll end up sending another, longer email in response to the response. It turns out that this is exactly what we should not be doing.

Research has been done that shows using email to communicate with people instead of having a face-to-face meeting with them is a mistake. It can reduce our performance on other tasks. Experiments have been conducted that show that face-to-face meetings reach conclusions faster. The studies also showed that when people used email to communicate, their ability to detect problems and think clearly was diminished. CIOs who have demanding jobs are at the most risk of having their abilities diminished by engaging in long emails. CIOs should try to find alternatives to email conversations such as talking with people directly.

A key skill of any CIO is the ability to effectively communicate with other people. We all use email as a primary way to get and send information. We need to understand that email has the ability to diminish our ability to communicate with other people. What we need to do is to take the initiative and try to meet with as many people face-to-face instead of email when we have a chance. Yes, email will always be a part of our lives, but we need to look for alternatives when they are available.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What is the best way for a CIO to determine if an email has become too long?

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