From Pivot Magazine | Features

Want to be a better boss? Stop checking email

New research shows business leaders should spend their time managing people, not inboxes

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 Computer screen displaying a very full email inbox Set aside blocks of time during the day to check messages instead of responding every time one lands (Shutterstock/Afanasev Ivan)

We all dread “the ping.” Maybe it’s a beep, a buzz or a silent, menacing pop-up. But once you notice it, your brain can’t help but halt whatever project you were plowing through. Why? You’ve got mail.

Email is widely accepted to be a productivity killer. 

“It takes two or three minutes after an email is sent off to cognitively re-engage with your job, or with whatever task you were doing before you were interrupted,” says Russell Johnson, a management professor at Michigan State University. And, according to a new study on which Johnson was the lead researcher, inundated inboxes wreak particular havoc on bosses. 

Johnson and his colleagues asked managers at companies of all sizes to report the frequency and cognitive demands of their email engagement. They found that while lower-level, administrative activities (like assigning tasks and making minor day-to-day decisions) weren’t radically affected by a full inbox, “leadership behaviours” (like strategic planning and nurturing employee growth) took a big hit.

“Those leader behaviours are key in providing employees with job satisfaction, commitment and performance,” says Johnson. “So beyond failing to complete their own responsibilities, overly emailed bosses may fail to motivate and inspire.”

Of course, bosses won’t permanently log off email anytime soon, so Johnson has a few recommendations to help managers, well, manage. Encourage employees to use discretion when cc’ing (“If a person does not need to be looped in, don’t”); turn off notifications (“that dreaded chirp”); and set aside blocks of time during the day to check messages instead of responding every time one lands (every two hours, for example). This applies doubly during busy periods like tax season, Johnson says. “Managers’ mental energy will already be running low due to work overload and time pressures, so it’s important for bosses to ‘protect’ themselves,” he says. One way to do that is to inform employees that they’ll take longer than usual to respond to emails, which can alleviate feelings of guilt and also prevents senders “from spending time and mental energy ruminating about why a leader hasn’t responded to them.” After a while, says Johnson, employees will learn your email habits and “how not to overburden you.”