Tuesday, March 17, 2009

E-mail Is Not A Good Motivator

Another conversation I find myself having over and over is telling people that e-mail isn’t a sufficient mechanism for communication.  I already discussed how e-mail isn’t a good medium for handling disputes.  It also is not a great motivator.  In today’s world where people get hundreds of messages a day, it is too easy to ignore.  Receiving an e-mail saying “Please get this done” sometimes doesn’t work.  This is especially true if there is no inherent power in the sender.  A manager’s mails less likely ignored, but those from a peer often are.  People are busy.  It’s going to take more than just 1/100th of their inbox (much less in some cases) to prompt action.

Too many times I’ve experienced aa conversation that goes something like this:

Manager:  “Why weren’t the widget’s waxed by 5:00 for the presentation?”

Report:  “I asked <other person> to do it.  I sent mail several times.”

Report seems convinced that they are absolved of responsibility because they asked.  In e-mail.  More than once.  Isn’t that enough?  What more should Manager expect?

If it is truly important that something gets done by <other person>, mail just doesn’t cut it.  As I said, it is too easy to ignore.  A different tactic is necessary.  One that expresses the importance by the level to which Report is willing to go to get it accomplished.  “Escalation?” thinks Report.  Maybe telling <other person>’s boss about it?  No.  Not yet at least.  Escalation ruins relationships and should be used only as a last resort.

The solution is as simple as it is old.  In today’s world, it is also more unique than it should be.  Try an analog approach.  Pick up the phone and call.  Walk down the hall and stop by <other person>’s office.  It takes some effort, but it will likely garner the hoped for results.  Amazingly enough, most people react differently to human contact than they do to an impersonal e-mail.  Personal contact creates some level of relationship.  It tells the person you care enough to expend the energy.  This might communicate that you care about them as a person or it might merely tell them that you care about the work.  Either way, they are more motivated to get the job done.  Two more benefits are that a personal visit is a lot harder to ignore than an e-mail and you know the message was received.

This effect works equally well with reports as it does with peers.  If something is truly important, say it in person as well as e-mail.


  1. Good article. I'm glad someone is saying this.
    It is kind of sad to think that sometimes we need to be reminded that proximity and inconvenience can be the most efficient forms of communication; when efficiency is measured in how completely each party understands each other, not just how quickly information can be dispersed.

  2. it's all good unless you deal with distributed team, or team of consultants. I am with MCS myself. I feel terrible pain when someone calls me and ask me to meet in the office to talk about some topic. Dude! it is 1 hour commute to the office, 1 hour talk, 1 hour commute back to the customer... 3 billable hours for something that can be resolved via emails. I found two very effective ways to handle it: 1) asking a guy to send me the agenda for the meeting. Usually it stops there.... 2) batch all such meeting for one day when i am in the office which intentionally happens biweekly. If you need too much time for face to face meetings to resolve your report's problems they cannot handle - you definitely have a problem. I have not heard about Google asking people to not publish junk on Internet, nevertheless it is able to surface the right find for your searches - think about it.... with right approach to emails you can achieve results.

  3. My favorite answer for every question: "it depends." Now I work in the company where emails are used rarely. Most of communication is done directly. And that's great. On the other hand when you get email you notice. You won't lose is among a hundred others.
    Having said that I still prefer to go get someone face to face when I have something important to do. Email is used more as follow-up or when you know someone is absent at the moment and you want to be sure the issue won't be forgotten.
    In one of my previous companies it was completely different. We read hundreds of emails daily. Or I should say skim. It was pretty typical your email prioritization system failed from time to time and some important issue was just lost. Then it direct communication was a must if you needed something important from one of your peers.
    The <a href="http://blog.brodzinski.com/2007/02/best-way-of-contact.html">best way of communication</a> depends both on an issue you need to deal with and with the environment you work in.

  4. Hi Steve,
    Superb post and something I feel all too passionately about. I'm a communication grad who's worked in IT for about 8 years now. I've seen a slow, but steady, decline in interaction between team mates, even in the same office. Instant chat tools are good for some purposes but all too often you see two colleagues in the same office skyping all the time. It's the way the next generation are communicating and sadly I feel like you do, it is hindering our performance and productivity.
    http://pac-testing.blogspot.com/ _ I've been working on my blog postings about communication for a few months now and am exploring more and more about it. This blog post is confirming to me that communication needs to be improved. The thing is though, like you say in the post, that the answers are simple. Very simple in fact. The underlying problems however, are harder to solve. We are not taught communication at school, college or university (in the uk anyway) unless we actively study it. We need to pay more attention to communication at an early age. It is a skill that needs developing just as much as coding, testing or any other discipline.
    Fingers crossed with posts like this one we can slowly instill in teams the need to communicate in person (where possible) and to make an effort to improve communication. Maybe I should have phone you instead of leaving a comment. Hmm. Practice what I preach.....

  5. The advantages of email I guess is due to it's conveniency.

  6. The problem is that neither phone call nor office visit can be verified in the future, and email message leaves its traces with clear time marks.
    Logging of the process comes especially important in technical projects, such as IT ones.
    If somebody doesn't react to emails it's a problem of discipline and corporate rules. People are on the job to work and it's simply their duty to pay attention to email.
    Modern email tools allow filtering, labeling and prioritizing of incoming messages so there is no any significant problem with incoming traffic.
    You can make phone calls and pay visits to your colleagues, it will be polite and friendly, but only in addition to emailing them, not instead of it.