I can’t tell you how much junk ends up in my inbox that should be a private conversation or frankly that I just don’t care about. I’ll bet if Microsoft removed the Reply All function from Outlook, U.S. productivity would climb by 15%, GDP would pop by a trillion dollars, and there would be 84% fewer aneurysms at work.
I believe there should be a qualification test you have to pass before Reply All functionality even works on your machine. It’s bad enough when people misuse the button because they’re clueless. It’s even worse when they misuse it to be passive aggressive or to play political games.
Yes, this is a bit of a rant post (like you expect less?) but it’s also a cautionary tale of how technology can be your friend and your enemy. You might think your laptop is cute and cuddly like WALL-E only to find out it rises up to destroy you like the terminator. Heed this advice now or pay the price later…
This one time, at band camp… oh. Sorry. Wrong blog. Lemme try again.
This one time, there was a team I was on. They did incredible work. They had found the balance between analytical rigor and rapid decision making. When they got busy, stuff happened.
At one point our team was making a meaty recommendation. The implications of the decision were pretty large so we made sure we involved the relevant stakeholders in the decision making process. Unfortunately many of those decision makers were either at remote locations or their schedules precluded us from getting in front of them face to face. Email became the channel we had to use to involve them.
The team sent out the presentation to those stakeholders. One guy in particular loved playing the “I’m smarter than you are” game and he usually did so by pointing out errors others had made. He’d do so in front of as large an audience as possible. When he received the presentation (which was also sent to about 20 other senior level execs on the same email) he decided it was time to play “gotcha!”
He thought he found an error in the team’s work. He deliberately hit reply all. We knew it was deliberate because his greeting on the email was “Hello everyone. I’m including all of you on this message because I think we need to all understand a problem I’ve found.” He decried the team’s “lack of rigor” and said he kind of expected it because he had “seen them do sloppy analysis before” (yes, he was a jackass). He demanded the decision not be made until the team “got it right.” Everything came to a grinding halt. The team was shocked.
We looked into this “error.” We were pleasantly surprised to find he had misread one of the pages and transposed some of the numbers. His conclusions were dead wrong. I informed him of this via a direct email addressed only to him. I explained where he had misread the numbers and clarified the conclusion was still valid.
He replied directly to me. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I misread the numbers. I’m cool with the decision.” It struck me as odd he had suddenly forgotten how fantastic the Reply All button was. I saw it as my civic duty to remind him.
I wrote: “Thanks for supporting the decision. I need you to send that same message you sent to me about how you were wrong and the team was right to all those folks on your first Reply All message. All those stakeholders are holding off on the decision and they still think the team does sloppy work. I need you to correct both of those points.”
His reply: “Well you can just update them and tell them I’m okay with the analysis.” He was backing out of doing the right thing.
I replied: “Either you can send the Reply All retraction and correction or I can write my own along with my own color commentary on the entire situation. I believe you’d definitely prefer the former to the latter in this case.”
His reply all retraction went out in about 2 minutes flat. In all the time the team worked with him after that, we never saw another reply all. If he had concerns with something, he came to the team directly to have them addressed. Behavior change is a wonderful thing.
A few parting points of guidance on using Reply All:
1. Make sure you know the difference between the Reply and Reply All buttons and what they do. I know it sounds silly but you’d be surprised how many folks don’t appreciate the difference.
2. Be deliberate when using Reply All. Look at it through the lens of “Care All” (as in does EVERYONE on that list REALLY care about your reply?). If not everyone will care, remove those who won’t and target your message.
3. Don’t play reindeer political passive aggressive games with the reply all button. I guarantee that strategy will backfire on you at some point. Be a grown up and go express your concerns directly. Everyone involved will appreciate it if you do.
4. Never escalate a Reply All passive aggressive war. See point 3 above.
5. One exception to this guidance is you should OCCASIONALLY use Reply All when you want to praise someone on the team for doing great work such that all recipients know about said great work. Praise in public. It makes the workplace a brighter place.
So who has a funny reply all story to share? Let’s hear it in the comments below.