When I opened my e-mail inbox this morning, the usual assortment of messages that arrive overnight were awaiting my review and action. This morning, however, the new messages were punctuated with exactly sixteen e-mails marked as HIGH PRIORITY – with that annoying red exclamation point – and all of the so-called urgent e-mails were from the same person. What am I to believe other than a) the offending e-mailer had sixteen emergencies pop up simultaneously; b) she believes that her information or requests for action are more important than anyone else’s; or c) she and I define “Urgent” in very different ways.
As the story goes, there once was an I.T. technical support group at a large U.S. company that handled requests based on the urgency of the problem. So when e-mails were sent to the support team for action, savvy senders realized that if they wanted immediate attention, all they needed to do was put “URGENT” in the subject line (this was pre-red exclamation points in Outlook). So the tech support team would then work on the supposedly urgent requests while the poor saps that didn’t include that very special keyword in their subject line waited for help at the back of the line.
Over time, of course, more and more people figured out how to work the system. So while it used to be that approximately 10% of e-mails to tech support were urgent requests, that number crept up over time to 20%...then 30%....and eventually over half of the requests for tech support were marked as urgent. This dilution of urgency meant that eventually, all requests were once again handled in the order they were received rather than in order of true importance.
That is until one day, someone sent in a request for assistance that was labeled “SUPER URGENT”, and a new level of priority was born. Going forward, in order for someone to receive any priority in the queue, a request had to be “SUPER URGENT” or else it would be handled with the poor saps whose requests were only the regular kind of urgent, or heaven forbid, not marked urgent at all.
When we find ways to work the system, to draw attention to our own priorities at the expense of others, we degrade the meaning of words like PRIORITY or URGENT. My challenge to you is this – pay attention to the use of the “High Priority” exclamation point in Outlook. How often do you mark your e-mails as urgent? Are they truly more important than others that are sent? Conversely, how often do you use the “Low Priority” designation to let someone know that their immediate attention is not required? Ever?
I’m proud to say that I use my exclamation points (both red and blue) with discretion and can only hope that the people receiving my e-mails appreciate the effort. I’ve avoided saying “Please Retweet” on Twitter and I don’t presume that what I have to say is so important that others have to pass it along to someone else unless they are moved to act on their own. Hopefully when I do need that kind of action and mark my request as urgent, or ask for a retweet, the recipients will know my request is sincere and act accordingly. Sadly, I’m realistic enough to know that my truly urgent requests are being drowned out by the super-urgency of others. Maybe that makes me the sap.
Chris Fleek is the Director, HR Services for Octane Recruiting. He has over 15 years of experience in Recruiting and Human Resources. This post can also be found at http://blueblanketblog.com. Comments and dialogue are welcome and appreciated.