Email: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Do you recall sending your first email?


Perhaps you were one of the earliest adopters, using AOL, Prodigy, or CompuServe to send your first email in the early 1990's. Perhaps you were like me, using Hotmail (username Redhott818) to send your first message after the email service began in 1996. Or perhaps you've always been a Gmail person, sending your first email sometime after Google's 2007 public launch.


Email has come a long way since its inception. In 1998, AOL users were sending an average of 3.5 emails a day. In 2019, the average business employee sent and received an average of 126 emails a day.


As is the case with most technology, email's influence on workplace effectiveness draws mixed reviews and depends heavily on user application. When used properly, email is simple and free to use, provides a running record of communication, and keeps employees connected. When misused, email stifles employee productivity, produces underlying stress, and undermines organizational health.


Whether you view email as a blessing or a curse, let's agree on one thing: Email is a way of life.

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Before we criticize email, lets acknowledge email has completely transformed schools. Email enables communication with staff, students, and parents at the push of a button. Email replaces unnecessary faculty meetings with a single, well-crafted message. Emails connect educators - whether they are elsewhere in the district or halfway across the globe.


In addition to improved communicative efficiency, email offers two "under the radar" benefits at work: keeping documentation and respecting people's time.


First, email generates documentation. How many times have you given staff verbal directives only to realize those requests remain unfinished several days later? Or how many times have you shared instructions during a faculty meeting only to realize staff did not follow directions? Unfortunately, lack of employee follow through plagues many school districts.


Having a paper trail is critical for holding employees accountable. Instead of debating what may or may not have been said in a conversation, email provides timestamped proof of marching orders. Shrewd bosses not only use email to efficiently communicate with a large audience, they also use email as a high leverage management tool.


Second, email is respectful of people’s time. While there are times when leaders need quick answers, the reality is most questions do not require an immediate response. Too many leaders interrupt others with nonurgent requests that could have been conveyed through email. Although these impromptu interactions only last a few moments, over the course of the week these disruptions add up.


My secretary sits approximately 20 feet from my desk. When questions arise, it's tempting to immediately visit her with every issue. However, doing so means I selfishly interrupt her work with my personal agenda. Bosses - we are terrible at this. Rather than disturb her concentration, sending an email allows her to respond when it's convenient for her.


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While there are several other "positives" about email, let's turn our attention to the pitfalls of email.


Let's get this one out of the way: email is addictive.


Studies have shown that 81% of workers check their email outside of work. Fifty-five percent of people check their email after 10pm, and 60% of people monitor their email while on vacation. At their desks, typical workers send or receive an email every four minutes, resulting in almost 30% of their workweek spent on email.


"Yeah, but what about educators?" you may be thinking. "They don't have time to spend on email."


While there isn't much data on email usage for educators, studies indicate 93% of teachers and 97% of administrators check their email multiple times a day. Furthermore, 88% of educators report checking their email when they are not in school.


So the question is, why is email so addicting? Part of the reason we love email is that our brains are wired to seek completion. When we recognize a task is done, our brain releases dopamine, making us feel good and wanting to repeat the behavior again.


Email taps into this urge for completion. Chipping away at our inbox provides a sense of satisfaction. The problem is while reducing our inbox offers a feeling of progress, it's just that - a feeling. Just when one email is taken care of, another appears. Our unread message count is always a moving target.


What can educational leaders do to fight email addiction? Here are four ideas:


Remove the App: Did you know that 58% of people check their email first thing in the morning? Talk about addicted! One of the best things to do is eliminate the email app from your phone. I did this in 2016 and completely changed my life. Don't worry, you still have plenty of time to check emails on your laptop.


Batch Emails: Pick specific times of day to handle emails, such as when you first arrive to the office, before lunch, or prior to leaving for the day. Doing so will not only save you from constant interruption throughout the day, but will help you get in the email "zone" and process emails more efficiently.


Organize: When batching emails, consider using the Getting Things Done method by immediately determining what to do with each email. If it is trash, throw it away. If it is merely information, place it in a "reference" folder. If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. If it takes more than two minutes, add it to a "next actions" folder and return later.


Inbox Cleanse: An empty inbox give leaders a sense of relief and satisfaction. Anything that appears in your inbox is like an unopened text message - a carrot dangling in front of you just begging to be opened. Most people have hundreds - if not thousands - of unprocessed emails that scramble the mind every time the inbox is opened.


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And now the ugly side of email.


Have you ever opened your inbox to discover a message that immediately rubs you the wrong way?


Such emails take many forms: A coworker offers a lukewarm response to your request for assistance on a project. A family member expresses disapproval of a life-changing decision. A supervisor shrugs off your suggestion to fix a recurring problem. A direct report openly questions a new mandate you gave employees.


Upon reading these emails, our heart rates rise, our muscles stiffen, and our blood boils. Our natural reaction is to immediately fire back with a scathing response pointing out why we are right and they are wrong.


I find myself in this position more than I would like to admit. While I am trying to get better about allowing thorny emails consume my time and energy, sometimes the temptation becomes too strong.


For example, a few years ago a school board member emailed inquiring whether or not I had followed up on a question from a community member. Although the tone of the email wasn't overly critical, I took offense to the suggestion I wasn't doing my job. "Of all the things I'm expected to do ... this is what you are concerned about?"


I proceeded to spend the next 60 minutes typing out (what I believed was) a perfectly calibrated response explaining why I had yet to provide a response, while also reminding the board member of the many other "more important" things currently consuming my time.


It took five minutes after pressing "send" to realize I should have stepped away from the email to let my emotions cool before responding. Not only would a private discussion with this board member have been the more mature response, the stress it caused to write the email drained my body of precious energy needed to perform my job at a high level for the reminder of the day.


Unfortunately, using email to attack colleagues, parents, and community members has become commonplace in today's schools. School leaders must confront keyboard warriors and remind them that sending nasty messages kills school culture and is not acceptable.


In Culturize, Jimmy Casas reminds us, "If there is a concern or issue that needs to be addressed, it is better to have the conversation in person rather than via email. If you receive a contentious online communication, respond by asking if you can meet face-to-fact to discuss the concern."


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When I was young my dad once said, "The older you get, the less fun it is to receive mail."


I had never thought about mail this way. As a kid, getting mail was enjoyable. Whether it was a birthday card from Grandma, or the newest issue of Sports Illustrated, I was always eager to open the mailbox.


However, as we age, mail is mostly bills, notices, and junk.


The same thing could be said for email. During my Redhott818 days, new emails were met with anticipation. Whether it was a message from my girlfriend, or a trade request in fantasy football, emails were exciting.


However, as we get older, email is mostly questions, issues, and ... junk.


Let's flip the script on email.


Rather than allow email to erode school culture, school leaders must take steps to ensure email does what it was intended to do - improve communicative efficiency.

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