It’s harder to be an effective boss if you’re always trapped in your inbox, according to new research.
If you’re employed in 2018, you probably spend a large chunk of each week digging through your inbox – getting trapped in lengthy debates that could have been resolved in one phone call, reading message threads you didn’t actually need to be CC’d into, and sending endless, endless replies. It’s the closest the average office worker will get to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down: clearing your inbox, then watching it quickly fill up again.
But according to a new study, we should all make an effort to spend less time dealing with emails, especially if we’re managers. The research from Michigan State University shows that trying to keep up with emails puts a serious strain on managers – and this could hold them back from being good leaders and achieving their goals.
While lots of research has explored the negative effect of email on employees more generally, this study – published in the Journal of Applied Psychology – is one of the first to look specifically at how managers’ productivity and leadership is affected by email.
The research was led by Russell Johnson, a professor of management at Michigan State University. “Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,” he said.
The paper cites research showing that it takes time and effort for employees to switch between email and work tasks. As a result, workers spend more than 90 minutes every day – or over seven hours a week – dealing with their inbox and transitioning back into work mode.
However, the negative effects of email distractions can have further-reaching consequences for managers than for more junior employees.
“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 behaviour they need to thrive,” Johnson explained.
As part of the study, Johnson and his team surveyed a group of managers twice a day for two weeks. The managers were asked to share the frequency and demands of their emails and how they felt they were progressing on their core job responsibilities.
They were also asked how often they engaged in effective “leader behaviours” or initiated “structure behaviours”. Leader behaviours “relate to motivating and inspiring subordinates, talking optimistically about the future or explaining why work tasks are important,” Johnson explained.
Structure behaviours, meanwhile, involve focusing on smaller, more tactical jobs that need doing immediately. Johnson describes them as “more concrete and task-focused [behaviours], such as setting work goals, assigning duties or providing feedback”.
The researchers found that on days when managers feel overwhelmed by their inbox, they felt like they hadn’t made much progress with their job responsibilities.
In turn, this meant they engaged in structure behaviour more than leader behaviour – because when you feel like you’re struggling to keep up with your workload, you’re going to focus on the small tasks you have right in front of you, rather than thinking about the bigger picture.
While this makes sense, it’s not great news if you want to be a good manager. Leader behaviour has a strong correlation to employee performance, Johnson said, suggesting that a manager’s team may be less productive and effective if their boss is regularly distracted by emails.
“The moral of the story is that managers need to set aside specific times to check email,” Johnson said. “This puts the manager in control - rather than reacting whenever a new message appears in the inbox, which wrestles control away from the manager.”
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