Monday, July 18, 2011

E-mail as a Leadership Task

When teaching about leadership, I remind participants that whether they realize it or not, their colleagues are watching them and paying attention to their behaviors. My usual examples are about whether leaders’ behaviors and actions are in sync. If you say people are important, do you actions show that people are important? There are numerous examples, but today I want to suggest that leaders need to pay attention to their e-mails. Think for a minute - what messages do you receive from the e-mails sent by the people in leadership in your organization; what messages do you send through your e-mails? I don’t mean in the text, I mean from the messages themselves, the number and the time they are sent.

Yes, it is important for a leader to inform others. In fact, one of the attributes of an effective leader is a willingness to share information rather than hoard it. Yet, if leaders don’t pay attention to the way they send e-mails, the information sharing may be more stressful than helpful. Leaders who send e-mails constantly, all weekend, at all hours of the day and night may think they are keeping staff informed, but in reality they are sending messages about expectations concerning the way to work in their organization. Often this ‘e-mail message’ is in direct contraction to stated messages about healthy work/life balance. Of course staff are quick to pick up on that message. A message of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ is never going to be believed by staff members.

As a leader in a large organization, I work the hours needed to get the job done, but I also practice creating a balanced life and I encourage that mix for the people I work with. As a result, once I get home, I glance at e-mail occasionally, but unless there is an emergency, I don’t respond until the next day. I rarely send an e-mail on the weekend or after traditional work hours unless there is a specific need.

E-mail management is a challenge for all of us in many ways. I just recently learned the term ‘e-mail bankruptcy’ though it has been around for a while. In case you don’t know it, people declare e-mail bankruptcy when they have gotten so far behind in their e-mails that they can never catch up – so they delete them all! (Does the very idea give you hives or a sense of relief? Both responses make sense to me.) What would happen if we changed our thoughts about e-mails from a management question to a leadership question? Thinking about the messages we send beyond the text by paying attention to the timing of our e-mails and the number of the e-mails is a leadership task. Take a moment to look at your Sent Mail and pay attention to details. Remember staff members pay attention to what their leaders do. How well are your words and actions matching? Are your e-mails sending the message you intend? Something to think about….

Best wishes,


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