Bosses, Managers, and Leaders: Is Your Inbox Preventing You From Doing Your Job?

Published: Oct 08, 2018 By

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Email is one of the most ubiquitous workplace tools in existence, and our reliance on it seems only to be increasing over time. There are roughly 3.8 billion email accounts in existence, and so far in 2018, an average of 281 billion consumer and business emails are sent every single day. This is a 37% increase from 2015. 

Email is an inescapable form of communication that informs nearly every single aspect of our lives, from personal to professional. But what happens when your inbox starts to work against you?

New research recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that many people in management or leadership positions are suffering from a kind of email overload, which in turn is preventing them from being good managers, bosses, and leaders.

According to the authors of “Boxed in by your inbox: implications of daily email demands for managers’ leadership behaviors,” employees spend more than 90 minutes per day (7 ½ hours a week) taking time away from their other job duties to respond to emails. For professionals in management or leadership positions, the frequency of these types of interruptions throughout the day takes them away from other important responsibilities and can have far-reaching consequences.

"When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager-responsibilities and their subordinates don't have the leadership behavior they need to thrive,” said author Russell Johnson, management professor at Michigan State University.

Taking a reactive approach to your inbox -- i.e. responding to messages and requests as they come in -- can intensify effects of email disruption and take quite a toll on your overall productivity levels.

Also, the study found, when managers and leaders spend the better part of their day responding to emails, they tend to compensate for the lost time and productivity by “limiting leader behaviors and pivoting to tactical duties.” So, instead of working on higher-level priorities or strategies, they are drawn to more tactical, daily tasks in order to bolster their perception that they’re being productive.

So, the lasting effects of spending to much time on your email can go beyond the time it takes to compose and send emails themselves as managers tackle smaller tasks throughout the rest of their day simply for the sake of feeling productive.

As Johnson explains, leaders who have ‘wasted’ time on emails are less likely to engage in typical “leadership” behaviors like “motivating and inspiring subordinates, talking optimistically about the future or explaining why work tasks are important.” Instead, he says, they “are more concrete and task-focused, such as setting work goals, assigning duties or providing feedback.”

So how can you escape the seemingly endless black hole that is your inbox and focus on actually leading and proactively driving strategies and performance, rather than just responding to requests?

The best way to do this, says Johnson, is to set aside very specific times each day to devote yourself only to email, and make a commitment to stick to this. Avoid checking email on your smartphone throughout the day, and fight the urge to respond to every message the instant you see an alert. In fact, turning off your email alerts and setting yourself to “away” for set chunks of time throughout the day is perhaps the best way to remove the temptation of that “ding” sound telling you a message has come in.

In effect, if you can minimize the amount of time you spend each day going back and forth from your inbox to a work task, you’ll have more focus and energy to lead your team and ensure their own performance as well.

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