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Managing Email Overload and Unintended Consequences

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Technology can be used for good or for evil. In one recent email efficiency problem we heard about, however, a business system had some fairly negative unintended consequences.

The feature in question is called “carbon copy” or simply CC. As any experienced emailer knows, you can send direct the same message to multiple recipients by placing their respective addresses on the CC line. (The term “carbon copy” refers to an even older technology for duplication that predates many younger business professionals.)

In this story, four people are doing similar work and all report to the same manager. Two of the team members, Ellen and Ernie, were doing quite well. Unfortunately their counterparts Sylvia and Stan had fallen behind. Since these employees are largely independent and work in different offices, none of them really know what the others are doing. Check out the email that Brittany the boss sent to all four:

Subject: Current Performance Levels
Cc: Ellen, Ernie, Sylvia, Stan

Hello. I’ve been reviewing the numbers from the last quarter and we’ve got some inconsistencies. Some of the team is doing pretty well but others are lagging below our needs. Let’s go ahead and institute a new review process: please send me all your reports for a final check before passing them along to their respective clients.


There’s likely three very good reasons that Brittany sent this email. First of all: it’s accurate. Some people are doing great, others not so great. Second, it’s extremely fair. Instead of identifying one or two people as being the source of the problem, the new review process is applied to everyone. Finally, it’s efficient. Brittany just sends one email to all four people, cutting her workload by at least 75%.

Good for Brittany. But how does this affect Ellen, Ernie, Sylvia and Stan?

email overload

© Flickr user williamhartz

Let’s review what each might be thinking when reading this email, starting with the two who are already doing excellent work:

Ellen: Hmm, interesting. I know that I’m doing a great job, so obviously I’m not the problem here. It must be one of these other guys dragging us down, and now Brittany is going to make us all do more work.

That pretty much kills my motivation. No reason to worry about doing flawless work any more, since Brittany’s going to review it anyway.

Doesn’t sound too positive. What about the other competent, on-task employee:

Ernie: Uh oh. I thought I was doing fine, but maybe not. What if I’m one of the problem people? I had no idea there was such a range. What if all of us are part of the problem and Brittany’s looking for someone to fire? What am I going to do?

How about the two team members who are really the target of Brittany’s efforts?

Sylvia: Well, I’ve been here for ten years and this is the first I’ve heard of this problem. Probably one of the new people is creating the issue and Brittany is just trying to get things right. I’m sure she doesn’t need me to actually follow this rule. I’ll just ignore it for now.

Stan: That’s too bad. I wonder who is causing the issue. Ellen? Ernie? Or is it Sylvia? Maybe there isn’t a problem at all, and this is one of those psychology tricks to try and get us to work harder. Yeah, that’s probably it. After all, if there was really an issue she would just call that person and let them know, right?

It’s always the case that four people can interpret one email entirely differently. The moral of the story, however, is not just to be extremely conscious about using carbon copy. Rather, it’s to show that just because a technique appears to be more equitable and efficient, it could still backfire.

Brittany would have done much better if she had taken the time to write four emails. Or better yet, she could have talked with everyone on the phone individually. For communication that is sensitive—such as discussions about individual performance—tone of voice can make all the difference.

If your company is having challenges using email productively, it might be because you’re trying too hard to use it efficiently. Watch out for the CC line. It might be a technology that causes more problems than it solves. And if you need help, contact our organizational productivity consultants here at AccelaWork. We’d love to help you improve workflow and communication with email.

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