Be the Person Removing People From an Email Thread

I am not a gambler, but I’m willing to bet that the distribution of the typical email thread in your inbox grows with time. Most of us feel urged to add more people to a discussion we perceive as important. I’ll risk making another bet: In most cases, adding more people to the loop does not make your discussions more effective, and sometimes they don’t conclude at all.

We have the best intentions. We keep adding people to email threads because we believe it promotes transparency. “If something is important to me, why not share it with a colleague?” Sometimes, we add people into the loop so we would not have to answer. “They have the relevant knowledge or the authority, so they should be the ones replying.” And there are cases where we genuinely believe the more people are involved, the better the outcome is. 

Good intentions, however, do not correlate with effective communication. While the rationale for adding more people to an email thread might seem sound, the mathematical fact is that at some point (relatively early), the more people involved in a discussion, the more its Return on Investment (ROI) diminishes. This is true for any method of communication, but even more so in the hard-to-follow threaded format of emails.

As more people join “the discussion,” there are more distractions in the form of notifications. More time is spent on communication. The discussion becomes more cluttered, and as it becomes more cluttered, fewer people will understand its nuances or even try to. As more people join (or are forced to join) the conversation, the cost of the email exchange increases, and the chances for it to be concluded with a good, operative decision reduce, and this is the case even if most of the participants are silent bystanders. 

The solution is to act as a moderator and continually ask, “Are all the participants still relevant to the conversation?” Anyone who isn’t can be removed from the thread, and they will likely thank you for it. It might initially seem strange, and explaining the rationale behind this move is probably a good idea. One thing is sure, though: reducing the distribution instead of increasing it can turn an endless, low-value exchange into a productive discussion that will actually reach a bottom line. 

Don’t confuse the need to communicate a decision once it is done and asking who can contribute to making the decision. Communicating a decision can be done on a broader distribution, as long as it is clear that this is no longer a discussion. However, the number of contributors must be limited when we are still working on making the right decision. 

Of course, removing people from an email thread should not be done mindlessly to meet some arbitrary quota. Assuming the purpose of the thread is well-defined and you know what you are trying to achieve, you must use this goal when considering who is actually relevant to the discussion. If the goal of the conversation is unclear or ambiguous or vague, the discussion is ineffective to begin with, regardless of the distribution. That is a clear sign that you should stop the discussion and first define what you are trying to achieve.

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