Evidence that Long Email Chains Make You Less Competent

How many times have you found yourself bleary-eyed sorting through an endless series of essay-like emails in a long chain. It’s painful. It’s maddening.

And evidence now proves that long email chains make you less competent and impede your problem solving abilities.

The Study


Dr. Gajendran is an associate professor of management at Florida International University. After finding himself exhausted by long email chains, he and his colleagues devised four experiments during which hundreds of paired subjects were divided into two groups. The first group met face-to-face to work through tasks. The second group used only email to communicate.

In the first exercise, the in-person pairs agreed upon a sales strategy in six minutes rather than the 20 minutes it took the email pairs. It’s unsurprising that the face-to-face group was more efficient. But what happened next was unexpected.

Diminished Problem Solving Skills


After the pairs finished their initial discussions, they separated and were asked to spot grammatical errors in a news story. Now working on their own, the email-only folks caught 19% fewer errors than those who had been in face-to-face teams.

Later, the former email communicators were 49% worse at solving a series of logic problems than the face-to-facers. And after that, the emailers scored 20% poorer on complex reasoning tests than those who had been face-to-face.

Lower Motivation and Accomplishment


In the next experiment, researchers compiled data from field testers who reported their daily levels of text-based communications, along with their daily goal progress and work engagement at the end of the day.

The study found that people with high levels of text communication working in jobs requiring strong problem-solving skills felt less excited and energetic about their work at the end of the day. They were also less likely than other groups to feel that they had made progress.

The study’s lead author said, “not only do you have less motivation, but you also suffer cognitive deficits.”

Strategies for Success


We can’t stop email, but there are ways to try to tame long email chains.

➡️ Ask to be removed from an email chain when you aren’t needed.

➡️ Suggest a virtual meeting to go through the issues if people are offering competing ideas.

➡️ Call the individuals using Teams, Slack, other messaging systems, or the old-fashioned telephone.

➡️ Remove others from an email chain when they’re not needed.

➡️ Separate issues into multiple emails with different titles so it is easier to focus on the issues one at a time.

There are times when you want or need a written record of a decision. In that case, offer to memorialize the conversation in a short email after the conversation.

Dr. Gajendran recommends determining whether the group is:

👉 Sharing information


👉 Needs to come to a decision or shared understanding.

If it’s information sharing, email is a great tool. For creating understanding or decision-making, set up a meeting.

By doing so, you’ll save yourself the misery of combing through long email chains – and be less frustrated, more competent, and more productive as well.

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Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart is the founder and CEO of Spark Compliance.
She's a renowned expert at transforming compliance departments into in-demand business assets.