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Xmas crackers: Information overload – myth or reality?

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crackersBlaming email for poor communication is like putting the cart before the horse, says Trevor Gay. Email is the servant not the master and we are always in control of it.







The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind William James 1842-1910

I will nail my colours to the mast from the outset. I love email and all new methods of digital communication.

I believe the new age of digital communication offers us unparalleled opportunities to become far more effective in the way we communicate with one another.

This article was first published in May 2008

Photo of Trevor Gay"Trainers are being approached with increasing demands to help organisations cope with information overload... I think the best thing trainers can do is to dust off the old manuals on simple, good manners and etiquette in communication."

Some people in management bemoan what they call 'information overload'. Some blame this on email and other new and instant methods of transferring information like text via mobile phones. I think we need to look a bit deeper.

The sweeping accusation that overload is the fault of the digital age - and email in particular - seems to me to be a far too convenient scapegoat. It smacks of the old saying 'a poor workman blames his tools’.

In a recent report the Post Office reported that;

  • 73% of UK workers would rather delegate a difficult task by email than face to face
  • 13% would resign by email or text message
  • 51% would rather apologise for mistakes by email or by text
  • 2% would fire employees by email
  • This research illustrates the method of communication is excellent but that it can be used for the wrong reasons.

    The method of communication must fit the circumstances – I would say 'twas ever thus.

    For instance, in matters of a disciplinary nature, dismissal or health issues it is not only wrong to use such impersonal, clinical and remote methods – it is insensitive, almost criminal in my opinion. Frankly I assume those who use email or text to dismiss employees are either cowards or ill.

    The fact we now have these efficient, instant methods of communicating does not mean we become absolved of responsibility to communicate professionally, ethically and, most of all, with politeness and good manners.

    When I send an email that gets no response I see no difference to meeting someone in the street, looking them in the eyes and speaking – only to be ignored completely. How many of us would do that? So why do some people completely ignore emails that someone has taken the time and trouble to write?

    The old excuse before email was 'I never received your letter - it must have got lost in the post'.

    Nowadays I am often left wondering if the new language is 'I haven't got your email - it must have gone into my junk mail'.

    Trainers are being approached with increasing demands to help organisations cope with information overload. My advice is not to develop new training manuals on communication methods about this.

    "The fact we now have these efficient, instant methods of communicating does not mean we become absolved of responsibility to communicate professionally, ethically and, most of all, with politeness and good manners."

    We are rapidly moving forward to the past where we are individually accountable for the way we communicate. I think the best thing trainers can do is to dust off the old manuals on simple, good manners and etiquette in communication.

    The basics are the new cutting edge is how I describe it.

    Why not adopt the three Bs approach to effective communication by email;

  • Be sensitive

  • Be appropriate

  • Be focused
  • I know we are all busy – in my working life we have always been busy. But being too busy to communicate is a cop-out. Effective communication is fundamental to all of us at work.

    Whether we are front line employees or senior managers, the vast majority of us use email. The number of email wise people is increasing rapidly.

    This offers trainers the chance to promote a view that we embrace new technology and underpin our use of it by re-teaching the basics of communication.

    Blaming email for poor communication is like putting the cart before the horse. Email is the servant not the master –we are always in control of it.

    When someone contacts me by email I always reply and I always reply quickly. I take the view that if someone has taken the time to write to me, the least I can do is to acknowledge that by replying. Often a one- or two-line email is enough to let that person know their communication has been received, understood and actioned.

    Like everyone reading this article, I am able to differentiate between junk mail and what is a genuine 'Dear Trevor' email.

    That is not meant to sound like arrogance – it is merely experience. We all have that experience if we have been using email for more than a fortnight!

    Yes there is loads of information rattling around the information super highway and it appears somewhat chaotic. But any junk email that escapes fairly sophisticated and efficient mail filter systems is instantly recognisable. It really is not a big deal to hit the delete button.

    There are ways of bringing order in our own piece of the planet whilst this apparent chaos occurs around us.

    Some of my personal coping mechanisms are as follows:

    1. I have an obsession about keeping my inbox empty. I aim to end each day with an empty inbox (I don't mind that someone said 'an empty inbox is the sign of a sick mind!')

    2. I quickly delete obvious junk emails

    3. I reply promptly to emails that only take a few seconds – it helps to clear the inbox. It is amazing how much difference it makes to see that inbox emptying before my eyes

    4. I always try to make my emails friendly. I treat the email as if I am talking to that person

    5. I try not to waste time in emails. If I am busy I just reply with the essential information – and trust that the receiver will understand

    6. When I do have time I make sure I use email in the friendly way I wrote letters in the 'good old days'

    I don't underestimate the volume of traffic but I genuinely believe this a mindset thing. If we believe there is information overload then there is – if we believe we can manage the information then we will.


    Trevor Gay is an independent leadership and management coach, trainer, consultant and author with a self confessed obsession for simplicity and liberating front line staff.

    To see more reflections from Trevor you can read his last article on TrainingZone by clicking here or visit his Simplicity Blog at www.simplicityitk.blogspot.com
    You can contact him by email on [email protected]

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