I admit it. I love email. I can’t even remember what it was like to manage people before email. It must have been lots of phone calls, meetings, hallway conversations, business trips and one-on-ones. Hey wait! I still have to do that. So, why the love affair with email?
Once It’s Emailed, It’s Done
Most managers have the awful habit of thinking that once they say something, it’s done. I know I suffer from this since at least in my mind it’s done because it’s now off my plate and on yours. Email makes this even easier because you don’t even need to physically tell someone — you just shoot off a quick email. This gives you the manager a sense of “getting things done” without actually doing anything.
Lost In Translation
Email does a poor job of conveying tone, intent and priority. It’s also awful at humor and nuance. These short comings actually make more work for the email manger since you have to send even more email to get your point across.
Tone and tenor is an important part of communications. Tone sets the mood while tenor conveys the urgency of the message. Email loses that. Even with the liberal use of punctuation, font, emoticons, bold and capitals, something gets lost in translation.
Intent is another thing that does not translate well in email. This stems largely from the half duplex nature of the medium. For example, you send an email, it get read and then responded too. There is not a lot of opportunity to clarify in real time or circle back for understanding. Everything has to be encapsulated in those few sentences of, hopefully, clear prose.
Priority is another thing that gets lost as the email deluge passes through your inbox. Sure, people use CAPITAL letters or put Priority in
the subject, but none of those really convey what type of priority you need to assign to this latest task. The email manager has a weak spot in that everything to her is a number one priority or she would not have sent you an email in the first place. This, again, stems from the fire and forget convenience of email where once it’s out of the mangers mind, to her, it’s done.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Managers (me included) get addicted to email because it allows instant gratification. No other management tool has as much power as the quick email to your team, asking for some task to be done. In fact, this access to instant gratification has made the email downpour that clogs your inbox the single biggest task you probably have to deal with everyday. How many of you get hundreds of emails at day? How many to you actually read and respond to them? How many of them are actually useful? Chances are, your managers or your addition to email has amplified the amount of email you receive and simultaneously reduced the quality of your communications.
Dealing With Your Email Manager
Managers that overuse email typically feel that they have to make sure that their wishes are promptly disseminated to the world. This stems largely from the rapid pace that most companies run at. Heck, I sometimes find myself barely keeping up with the incoming email flood while still sending out just as many. It’s like a self perpetuating machine — the more email you get, the more you send. If you have a boss that heavily relies on email, consider these steps for making the relationship a little more productive.
Realize she is a status junkie: Email managers love to me in the know. It’s like crack to get those updates as the situation develops.
Regular one-on-ones: Consistent, regular communication will reduce the amount of email your boss sends you. The best venue is a one-on-one where you control the agenda and provide status.
The rule of three: This is a bit subjective but you can always ignore email requests until you see them at least three times. This one you need to be careful on since it’s boss dependent.
Ask for clarification: Priority changing emails should be clarified since your boss might have forgotten that she just assigned you a new number one priority.
Preempt with a quick email: Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Send your boss quick notes and status updates before she asks will reduce the amount of email traffic and show that you have things under control.
Don’t answer right away: Sometimes, it’s best to let an email go unanswered until you either have more data or are waiting for someone else to respond. This delay method is also an effective way to hold off on continuing an email thread that seems to be spinning out of control.
Remember, that an email manager likes email because it’s a buffer between him and the rest of the world. Email can insulate from the sticky situations that mangers have to deal with but it’s no substitute for dealing with problems in person or over the phone. A manager that solely relies on email will severely limit his leadership reach.
Being a Better Email Manager
Don’t get me wrong, email is a wonderful tool if used properly. The problem lies in it’s over use and abuse. So, if you suffer from an email addition (as I do), then try some of these techniques to break away from the addiction:
No substitute for actual conversations: Email is not a substitute for talking to people. So, get out of your office and go talk to people.
Crisp prose always wins: Make sure you cater the message to your audience by forming crisp ideas that are easily understood.
Proof read at least twice: Never send an email without at least reviewing it a couple times. The higher the importance, the higher the number of proof reads you need to do.
Less than ½ a page: An email longer than a page will not be read. The fact is most people will skip most of a long email to get to the meat.
Include more via attachments: If you must go beyond half a page, then put the rest in an attachment as a formal write up. That way, people can refer to it if required.
Summarize the desired actions and insights: Make sure you summarize or bullet point critical ideas and actions. This helps tremendously when another busy manager scans your email.
Include deadlines on tasks: If you assign tasks via email, make sure to put in a deadline. It is not acceptable to put in ASAP or leave the end date hanging.
You don’t have to respond to everything: One way to be a better email manager is to not comment on every single email you get. Doing this can drag out a conversation and waste a lot of bandwidth. Only answer when you can add some value or insight.
As a manager, your job revolves around communicating. Crafting the proper message and using the best communications medium will allow you to be a more effective manager. Try and remember that the next time you hit send.