CC, BCC, Reply to All – the deadly trio, Part 2.
How to spare each other from the overuse of these three simple e-mail functions
In last week’s article I discussed typical ways in which the “CC”, “BCC” and the “Reply to all” functions get misused at workplaces. This week I will focus on possible solutions to those problems.
How can we change our e-mailing habits?
Have we got a problem with our e-mailing habits? Let’s change them. Let’s agree on some simple rules and then stick to them.
This approach often works. It helps people understand each other’s preferences. It helps to harmonise people’s communication habits. In this article I will give you some examples of such rules that can simplify e-mailing and reduce e-mail burden.
But there is a deeper layer to the CC-BCC issue that we shouldn’t ignore. Without fully understanding the root cause that makes people overuse or misuse the CC function, we will only be able to scratch the surface using our new guiding rules for e-mail use. The real problem won’t be solved.
It will just be another incident of bear-shaving: a superficial treatment of a much deeper problem.
Useful guiding rules to make e-mailing more efficient:
- Think twice before you CC anybody. This might sound trivial. However, even the joint recognition of the fact that we overuse the CC function helps cut the amount of internal spam considerably, especially if we give each other feedback on whether the CC was necessary or unnecessary each time.
- Informative subject lines. In a large organisation it is impossible to know all the time who should be included as a recipient. Therefore, people will get e-mails that are not strictly relevant to them. But at least we should help each other by using informative subject lines that express the essence of the given e-mail thread.
- If you change the subject, change the subject line. We all know the phenomenon when the original e-mail was titled “Friday project meeting cancelled”, but in fact people are already writing on the same thread and under the same subject line about whether they should bring homemade cakes to the office Christmas party. Some people waste a lot of their time reading through the whole thread just to check whether there is anything new in it, while some others who were not interested in the meeting being cancelled miss the cake story altogether. Avoid all this confusion by matching the subject line with the topic.
- Make a clear distinction between “To” and “CC”. If a task is given via e-mail, make sure that the one person you delegate the task appears as the main recipient of the e-mail. All others are CC. If someone appears in the CC line, no action is required of them. This rule can be an easy antidote to the blurring of responsibility, especially if coupled with a deadline, a clear definition of the task and the name of the person responsible for it.
Touching the deeper roots of the problem.
Very often poor internal e-mailing habits signal more in-depth problems than those that can be tackled by the aforementioned guiding rules. Poor habits which are strongly linked to the organisational culture can be changed only by understanding the root cause and changing the beliefs, attitudes, and hidden assumptions that drive this behaviour.
- Too much CCing to the bosses can indicate lack of empowerment. I don’t feel empowered to act on my own; I feel that I have to include my boss in the e-mail flow. If this is the root cause, management has to give some serious thought to the question of what makes people feel that the boss needs to know about almost every e-mail they send.
If you are a manager, it is worth taking a conscious look at the CCs you are getting from your employees. Are they all necessary or useful? Or might they indicate that certain employees are reluctant to solve problems on their own? How could you encourage them to be more self-reliant? Here the benefit is not only fewer e-mails in your mailbox, but ultimately fewer tasks you have to get involved in.
- Too much BCCing in the organisation can indicate hidden conflict and lack of trust. People might feel compelled to talk (or write) behind each other’s back.
If you would like to improve the organisation in this area, first it is worth taking a close look at these patterns – starting with investigating your own habits – then having meaningful discussions about them with relevant people in the company. When do you feel tempted to use BCC? In which e-mails are you included as BCC? Why does the content have to be hidden? What can be done to make things more transparent in the organisation? How can we be more transparent and open with each other, irrespective of our BCC habits? If people can start communicating more openly and honestly, the need for BCC will gradually disappear.