At a time when technologies are advancing fast, a good old-fashioned email suddenly seems somewhat archaic, but don’t be fooled. In the business world, the keyboard remains king — and a dictatorial one at that. As soon as an email notification appears on the screen, recipients of all rank-and-file stand to attention.
We become distracted from conversations and work tasks. A little panic may even set in. For those unable to click and read instantaneously, the otherwise innocuous envelope icon becomes an almost unbearable itch in desperate need of scratching. Such is the power of email, it has turned into the ultimate ruler.
Not only is it the decision-maker’s leadership tool of choice, it is controlling them too.
Much like the Wizard of Oz, an email is a faceless commander that can appear far more frightening than the human hand behind it. Only, this isn’t a children’s story, it is serious, and it’s changing the essence of management as we know it.
“Doing emails” has become a core, and relentless, business task that tramples on other essential activities such as communicating, developing people, providing accountability and observing operations for yourself. Given the chance, a leader could quite conceivably spend an entire working day emptying their inbox (and filling someone else’s), without uttering so much as a word, or looking a single person in the eye.
Here, I must hold my hands up and confess that I am addicted to my iPad and smartphone as much as the next guy, but I stop short of leading by email. And I urge you to do the same. I am still a fan of MBWA — managing by walking around — not of MBEA (with an “E” for emailing). Unfortunately, however, it’s the latter that now reigns supreme, and while email might seem like a fast and efficient way of conducting business, it can cause no end of disruption, for leader and employee alike.
Think about it: are you really in charge of the rhythm of your business today? You might call the shots, but the email is controlling the pace at which your bullets fly. It is an unwritten rule that emails demand immediate attention as soon as they “ping”.
Yet, neither the sender nor the world-wide-web can control how long it actually takes an employee to respond. Your email request might be urgent, but as soon as you hit “send” the ball lands firmly in the recipient’s court. You might be the boss, but when it comes to speed of response, your forces of electronic management only stretch so far.
Maybe the recipient doesn’t check their mail in time. Maybe, they simply choose to ignore it. And let’s not even get onto the topic of how leaders choose to address the mounting messages in their in-boxes.
In fact, an email enables avoidance tactics on both sides to thrive. Just as an employee might choose to wait until after lunch or even the next day to respond to their boss’ e-request, many leaders take what they see as the easy road, managing remotely via incoherent bullet points, curt instructions and predictive text. And, in doing so, somewhere in the digital ether, responsibility and the basic rules of engagement get lost.
In the most severe cases, poorly crafted or ill-timed emails lead to frustration, resentment and confusion all-round.
Worst of all, much like social media, the email has emboldened some leaders to fire off messages that are void of context, or consideration for the person on the receiving end. Let’s be honest: it is impossible to relay in an email the same intention, tone and message that personal encounters allow.
What’s more, while inspiring your team electronically is a near impossible feat, you can kill their motivation in an instant, with one simple click.
Don’t get me wrong, the email has its place. In fact, businesses the world over would be lost without it. But, when leaders reduce their management duties to an email account, they plunge themselves and their teams into dangerous territory, breaking rhythm, altering moods and creating confusion as they go.
Technological advancement is fantastic for business, but sometimes, there’s no substitute for a smile, a handshake and a face-to-face chat.
Tommy Weir is the CEO of EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of ‘Leadership Dubai Style’. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.