Leaders Must Exorcise The Curse of Email

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

I recently wrote about the 11 Behaviors most disliked by IT Leaders, and #9 in that list was:

Email-itis – in other words, staff using emails rather than interacting with each other in person. The added hatred was the use of blind copy and the overuse of copy to a wide audience

What is so annoying about email-itis is when we have to follow a thread back through the conversation to find anything relevant. And if you print the thread out to digest it then we end up wasting tons of paper as the thread becomes more and more indented…

Chris Mahan in his response to my last post (see http://chrismahan.blogspot.com/2008/07/response-to-11-behaviors-most-disliked.html) commented that this is fuelled by fear, and I agree that this is often the case. I think in the contemporary business climate, the use of email has allowed the avoidance of conflict. We are breeding weak workers and leaders because of this. Conflict, in the business sense, builds character and strength, and learning to be strong enables leaders to be more effective. The ability to withstand conflict allows leaders to create an environment that supports challenge, negotiation, and the opportunity to say No. The world is not a perfect place, so Win:Lose arguments are commonplace. Leaders must ensure that effectiveness and ‘doing the right thing’ win out above ineffective, pointless pursuit.

So Leaders shouldn’t allow Email Tennis and Email-itis to prevail.

  • Leaders can do this by effectively stamping it out, by spotting these threads when they happen and then (whatever the subject) encouraging participants to get around a table to discuss the subject (or a conference phone if appropriate.)
  • Leaders can lead by example and not engaging in this activity themselves
  • Leaders can use value-driven statements and mandates when addressing the team by describing this behavior as counter-cultural
  • Employees can be encouraged by email-usage policies to avoid this behavior

The crux of this is that it is a leadership responsibility. Employees won’t resolve this themselves whilst it plays to their comfort zone. Leaders are accountable for the work environment, and therefore must take positive action to correct the behavior. Leaders must lead by example and walk the narrow line between openly engaging in challenge/conflict whilst not creating an environment of avoidance.

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3 thoughts on “Leaders Must Exorcise The Curse of Email”

  1. Nice.

    Although I don’t, I think some people use their email inbox as their todo list. Once they complete, they move to the appropriate folder (or they leave to rot in the inbox).

    I wonder how prevalent that is.

  2. @Chris – yes I know people that use the Inbox that way too. They make it work by optimizing themselves around the behavior, but that takes time. I do wonder though how they compartmentalize the actions from the information. It would do my head in quite frankly!

  3. Many IT staffer in Financial Services use email as the to-do list – David Allen’s GTD was right on the “pain button” when he sent his trainer/coach to the firm I worked at.

    Unfortunately applying it to all aspects of your life by (for example) syncing employee owned PDAs with the corp PC was a no-no for the bank’s security folks. A wise call, in my opinion as the baddies are always looking for the Achilles heel of big corps.

    On email overuse. Yes, It’s seeped into everyday business life. Oh how I miss the days of a 2400bps async modem!! On a biz trip to Hong Kong way back when I think I sent 2 (simple text) emails over a 10 day period. Anything else was dealt with by phone/voice mail. Idyllic!

    I don’t think there are easy solutions when folks work across multiple time zones and report to matrix management lines. Stuff comes in overnight and requires multiple player inputs in short order. What we need a re virtual email robots…

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