my boss has 10,000 unread emails — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Is it ever normal to have 10,000+ unread emails in your professional inbox?

Yesterday I inadvertently saw that my boss had 10,965 unread emails. She is a general counsel of a medium-sized company and does not seem to be overloaded with work. The majority of her team (around six people) are very autonomous in their work and do not often need her insight. Her working hours are equivalent to mine, around 50 hours per week, which is considered to be normal working hours in my field. Nor do we have automatic software notifications that tend to inundate our inboxes.

I have heard colleagues saying that she rarely answers emails. And I generally don’t send her email if I need her insight or feedback, as I know I will not get a quick answer (unless I chase her up face to face regarding the message). If I need something from her, I will go directly to her office or text message her, and in those those cases she is responsive. However, I work in the same building as she does, so I can step into her office anytime. Some of my colleagues who are not based in the same city struggle a little more to get answers from her.

Last month, I needed to obtain an information about a file I am working on, and she told me to contact someone in an other department for the info. Once I contacted did, that person told me that they already sent an analysis of the situation to my boss. I went to my boss’s office to ask her whether she has received the analysis. She checked her emails and found it. She then sent it to me and apologized.

This morning, we were in a meeting with an other department, and she mentioned something about an email that we all received. But I think that she read it so quickly that she misunderstood it (it was a very simple message), and she was corrected by the sender, who was in the meeting.

I haven’t worked for her that long and, given my autonomy, I do not closely work with her, so I cannot truly evaluate her competence or workload. And to be fair, she is always available whenever I step into her office. I was simply taken aback by her huge amount of unread emails.

There are a surprising number of people like your boss with literally thousands of unread emails in their inboxes. Even tens of thousands.

I don’t get it, but they’re out there.

With some people who do this, it’s not that they’re intentionally ignoring messages. They’re on mailing lists that send tons of messages and rather than deleting them, they for some reason leave them in their inboxes and just keep an eye out for anything else. But of course, when you do that, it’s easy to miss messages you actually need to see. It’s not a good system, although clearly some people feel it works for them.

With other people, the unread count is deceiving. They’ve filtered mailing list messages into subfolders, so they’re not cluttering up their inboxes — but in some email programs, the unread count in subfolders still shows up in your overall unread messages count. (Personally, I wouldn’t be able to take that stress and would be deleting every day — or at least marking as read — but some people aren’t bothered by it, or at least learn to live with it.)

All of this means: Don’t draw conclusions about your boss’s competence based on her unread email count. Draw your conclusions based on what you see of her actual work.

You’ve seen enough to know that email isn’t a good way to get her attention and that she has missed important messages … so that’s a data point in favor of her being disorganized, at least.

It makes sense to adjust for the email issue the way you’ve been doing — calling, texting, or dropping by her office. Your remote coworkers probably need to do the same thing (minus the dropping by).

There are people out there who are good enough at the core of what they do that people are willing to accept this kind of deficit in them. There are also people whose work doesn’t justify having to work around them in this way — but you’re probably not in a position to do anything about that. All you can really do is file this away as useful info about how your boss operates, and adapt accordingly.

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