In emails as well as speech, there's such a thing as too much information.
There’s definitely some truth in the wisdom that it’s better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate. Ideally, every manager gives their team members just enough direction to get on course and the leeway to do their thing free of micromanagement.
The reality is often different, though. No good boss wants to leave their teams feeling empty-handed or unsupported, so they sometimes veer off too far in the opposite direction. I’ve learned the hard way that overcommunication is easier to fall into than you might think, and it winds up obfuscating my message and wasting everyone’s time.
Fortunately, I’ve managed to get better at figuring out when my communication is more distracting than useful. Here are some of the key criteria I use in order to tell whether I'm overcommunicating.
Timing my message is one of the most important things I've learned to do. Determining the urgency of your message and the medium for it isn't easy, but a good first step is simply being deliberate about it.
Ask yourself if the message you're about to send will require additional clarification—but also whether you've covered its main point already.
For example, when I needed to let my employees know about an emergency, there’s no "wrong" time to send out a mass text message or phone recording.
Email, on the other hand, is more often a check-when-you-can medium, so it's arguably the least disruptive. But texts, phone calls, and group chat messages on platforms like Slack or HipChat usually draw someone's attention away from something else. So before you send it, ask yourself whether that's essential.
By some estimates, around 205 billion emails get sent every day. How many of them repeat the same message, perhaps just reworded or with a greater sense of urgency? If an employee doesn’t fully understand the scope of a new project, it might make sense to redefine that scope in new terms—otherwise, you're just wasting time.
Instead, ask yourself if the message you're about to send will require additional clarification—but also whether you've covered its main point already.
There’s some evidence to suggest there’s an upper limit to the number of emails an employee can reasonably handle in a day. Some estimate that after more than 50 emails, most people struggle to keep up.
I’ve found that I really need to ponder just how much the messages matter. Sometimes, employees have forgotten about certain tasks or neglected things on a deadline, so I know that persistence in these cases is beneficial. The axiom "trust but verify" applies here. I try to keep those follow-ups to a minimum and only trade notes when there's new information.
There are a number of ways to define "value" when it comes to how you communicate. For example, your message could be valuable because it gives new instructions or because it acknowledges receipt of a different message; the latter isn't necessarily frivolous. Before I send anything, I ask myself:
Plus, over time, my team members have learned that I only communicate when I really need to. So they pay more attention when I do.
An incoherent email—no less than an incoherent pep talk during a meeting—is like a puzzle that people have to solve before they can take any significant action or walk away with new knowledge.
An incoherent email . . . is like a puzzle that people have to solve before they can take any significant action.
No matter how quickly I need to get things done, I often take my time to craft clear messages for the team, including proofreading my emails before sending them. It’s a good step to make sure my messages are being received and digested efficiently. The University of Wisconsin has an excellent guide on writing clearer, more coherent sentences, and Purdue's online style guide is a great resource that's helped me be more concise.
This is my checklist when I want to talk to my team about anything noteworthy. As long as my messages are timed properly, original, persistent but not nagging, valuable, and clear, then I know I've minimized the risk of overcommunicating to them.
Still, while overcommunication is bad, undercommunicating can be even worse. It's all about striking a balance, then maintaining it.