Enhancing Leadership Through Effective Use of Email
You are about to start working today. It is 8:00AM in the morning. You sit in front of your desk and turn on your computer. After a couple minutes of relaxing and browsing through your Facebook feed, you open your inbox and think to yourself, “Oh no! How am I supposed to respond all these emails on top of some left over emails from yesterday?” Then, you jump into the virtual world of communication — trying to set up a meeting with your boss, responding to your clients’ emails, and following up with your colleagues. But how would you know if your emails have upset someone? How can you be certain that you address every important issue in your emails? How do you know if you are communicating via emails effectively?
In this digital era, it is inevitable that you will have to communicate with other people via emails regarding both personal and work-related issues. In some ways, it’s like we have become more and more enslaved to email. Email overload leads you to feel obligated to respond quickly, overwhelmed, afraid of missing information, and eventually addicted to emails.
Now it is 1:00 PM, you have just got back from your lunch break. You realize that you need to have a discussion with your team about a new project. You are planning to use a group email thread to communicate with your team about this matter instead of scheduling a time to meet. You start an email thread and leave your office for a couple hours to attend a meeting with your client. When you come back, you see that you have more than 20 new email messages from that thread alone. On top of that, two of the people on your team send emails to complain about how the thread is so distracting.
Being a good leader is more than just being able to lead a meeting or create a shared vision for your team. Being a good leader is reflected in your email communication skills as well. Good leaders concern themselves with their followers’ well-being and since email communication is a big part of your followers’ work routine, it is important that you understand how to effectively use this tool
Based on my experience assessing leader’s behaviors in an email communication simulation, which we offer at the LeAD Labs, I have seen how leaders respond to this email task differently. Some of them focus entirely on getting work done and try to accomplish the tasks as much and as quickly as possible. Other people spend more time making sure that his or her emails look friendly and professional. At our assessment center, our assessor team uses Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales (BARS) as criteria to provide each leader scores and feedback. The four main criteria we use for evaluating leadership in email communication are Planning and Organizing, Problem Solving, Relationship Maintenance, and Written Communication. I will provide some practical recommendations that you can use based on my experience and research following these four criteria.
Planning and Organizing
Scheduling specific timeslots to check and respond your email is a good strategy. Research shows that it takes some time (about 15-20 minutes) to refocus on your original task if you are interrupted by emails. This strategy will help to reduce interruption throughout the day (for you and your followers). Although scheduling time to check email can be different depending on types of jobs, a general recommendation is to check email two to four times a day.
One of the major problems in email communication comes from the sheer number of emails we all get. Often times in our simulation we find that some people do not address every important issue in each email. This may lead to a long email thread because the sender has to send another email to follow-up with you regarding missing information. You have to ensure that you respond to every question or request that comes up in your emails. This does not mean that you have to solve every single problem or have every answer for all questions. But you need to at least provide an update to the sender. This will help reduce email volume and enhance credibility.
Research shows that receivers tend to perceive messages in email communication less positively or even more negatively than the sender intended them to be. This means a good leader should be careful about what they decide to email to their followers instead of meeting with them face-to-face. In fact, research shows that “56% of employees agreed email is used too often instead of phone or face-to-face communication.” It might be a good idea for leaders to occasionally call his or her followers, or talk to them directly, instead of automatically sending off another email. This will not only reduce email volume, foster better relationships between leaders and followers, but also ensure that the correct emotional message is being communicated.
Since emails tend to be read more negatively than face-to-face or phone communication, you need to structure your emails in a way that readers can easily follow. Before hitting the send button, you should make sure to read through your emails again in order to check your addressees, the flow of the email, and grammatical or spelling errors. It is also a good idea to include openings and closings that directly get to the point or summarize the action to be taken.
These recommendations do not mean to be an exhaustive list, but rather a means to provide a starting point to be an effective leader via email communication. This list is a good starting point for those of you who want to be more effective in your email communication. Given the importance of email in most organizations today it is a good idea to make sure your skills are up to date and not holding you back from being as effective a leader as you could be.
At LeAD Labs, you can participate in our Assessment Center. You will partake in three leadership simulations and we will provide a full report on how you did in each of them. For more information, please visit www.leadlabs.org
Poom Pitichat is a Master student in Psychology and Human Resources Design at Claremont Graduate University. He is currently a member of the Research lab, Workshops lab, and Organization development lab at LeAD Labs. He designs LeAD labs logos’ and digital materials and maintains the website. His research interests include e-leadership, leadership development, and positive relationship at work.
Byron, K. (2008). Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 309-327
Holtbrügge, D., Weldon, A., & Rogers, H. (2013). Cultural determinants of email communication styles. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 13(1), 89-110.
Jackson, T. W., Burgess, A., & Edwards, J. (2006). A simple approach to improving email communication: Going back to basics. Communications of the ACM. 49(6), 107-109
McMurtry, K. (2014). Managing email overload in the workplace. Performance Improvement, 53(7), 31-37.