As a psychologist who focuses on productivity and workplace behavior, there’s one topic that’s almost always guaranteed to lead to heightened emotions: email overload.
In my work with a number of corporations, I’ve consistently found that the average number of emails people receive is typically two to three times what they send.
So if you send 50 emails a day, you probably receive 100 to 150 in your inbox.
In other words, email breeds. And where does this happen? The CC field.
CC stands for “carbon copy.” If you’ve never seen carbon paper, it’s a type of waxy tissue paper that is used for duplicating typing or writing from one sheet to another. It was a very popular office supply decades ago, and can still be found in some places.
And, today, CC is a substantial cause of the email problem. If your company still relies on email to collaborate, then this antiquated acronym is stealing your time.
Let’s find out why.
To CC or not to CC
CC-ing isn’t always a bad idea. There are rational reasons to copy others on an email:
- Someone asked you to
- Your message is genuinely relevant for all recipients
- All email recipients need to take actions
As long as we stay disciplined and rational with our CC habits, we’re in good shape.
However, do humans always work rationally? Nope. Here’s what’s actually motivating all of that maddening unnecessary CC-ing:
Cause #1: Fear
A significant motivator of human behavior is fear. When you write an email, there is a greater sense of accountability than with a spoken word.
The message becomes part of a saved record. It shows in black and white what you wrote on a particular date and to whom.
How do we respond to that fear? I’ve worked with clients who write and rewrite emails to the point of obsession. Others are so afraid of being held to their writing that they don’t respond at all.
More often, people respond to this fear using the CC field. You might copy your boss because you fear that she won’t think you’ve followed through without seeing proof. You might want to keep your colleague in the loop because of a communication breakdown that happened two years ago.
Here’s my advice to you: Don’t let fear dictate your choices at the keyboard.
If the main motivation of copying others is to allay your own fears, pause and reconsider before hitting send.
Cause #2: A Need for Positive Reinforcement
I recall a particular client who saw email as a great way to communicate his thoughts and accomplishments to his boss and his colleagues.
A really great way. Which meant a lot of emails about his thoughts and accomplishments…and a lot of people filling up the CC field.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the positive feelings that result from a job well done. And there is a time and a place for tooting your own horn.
But lengthy autobiographical emails can cause more harm than good, particularly when they get out of hand.
I’ve also had clients who were on the receiving end of these kinds of emails. One was in a leadership role and found herself being CC-ed on the majority of emails written by a member of her staff.
This meant that my client’s inbox was full of emails that did not require any actions on her part. She became increasingly annoyed with this person on her team.
The motivating factor in both of these cases was a need for positive reinforcement on the part of the sender. People vary in the quantity and quality of the feedback they want to receive from those around them. It’s not a weakness to desire reinforcement – it’s a variant in human behavior. But email-related actions still have consequences (and causes).
If you’re the person who copies others on your emails in anticipation of appreciative replies, then pause and reconsider.
Can you get the feedback you need during regularly scheduled meetings?
And if you’re the leader being bombarded by CCs in your inbox, try to ascertain why. Are you giving enough feedback and positive reinforcement to your team?
Cause #3: Unproductive Defaults
The human brain takes in a ton of information from the five senses and uses shortcuts to keep from being overloaded.
We all develop habits, rituals, and mental maps that allow us to go on autopilot in familiar situations. In computer systems, these would be “defaults.”
Many of our default behaviors are productive. They’re a result of trial and error in finding the best path from Point A to Point B. However, sometimes our defaults are unproductive. The ends that they used to help us achieve is no longer desirable (or maybe never was).
One unproductive default comes from a desire to fill an empty space. Do you have empty drawers or bookshelves in your home or office? Probably not.
Similarly, we may think to ourselves, “The CC field is there! It must contain something!”
Another unproductive default is a desire to follow the crowd. Copying others and even replying to all become a part of a culture of email communication. It’s simply what we do. It’s the way we’ve always done it.
To break out of a loop of unproductive defaults, pause and reconsider. Ask yourself (and others, if needed) the question “why” over and over again until you get to the root cause of the over-copying.
How to Stop Breeding Emails
Copying others and even hitting reply-all aren’t always the wrong choice. However, there are alternatives to consider, especially if you suspect that fear, a need for positive reinforcement, or unproductive defaults might be motivating you.
Consider these options before CC-ing people on your next email:
- Discuss the issue in the next regularly scheduled meeting. It’s already in your calendar anyway.
- Construct a single daily or weekly status update email to your manager in lieu of copying them on emails. Save it as a draft until you are ready to send it.
- Address all recipients of your emails by name in the body of the email. If you’ve got nothing to say to them, then why are they copied?
- Reply only to people who are directly impacted by your response. Reply All only when absolutely necessary.
Bringing New Awareness to Email Behavior
As you start to become more mindful of how you CC others, you may begin to notice your own habits and patterns. Use this as an opportunity to discover more about yourself.
With greater awareness, you may uncover insights that you can use to CC less — and streamline and improve your work communication across the board.