I was at a function recently where one of the attendees was moaning about his manager. The problem he had with her was not a lack of communication; rather, it was the way she communicated. Everything was sent via email — even if it was a reprimand, a complex set of instructions for a project or a personal matter.
It left the poor man feeling either dejected, confused or just plain uncomfortable.
This guy was not alone — I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when email hasn’t been used in the best way. An article reproduced on Alliance Resources about a survey by accounting staff provider Accountemps found that 92% of executives used email in preference to one-on-one meetings — and 62% used it instead of face-to-face conversations.
“That means a significant amount of missed opportunities to coach and lead your team,” according to Accountemps.
The article calls management by email “MBE” (a sister concept to MBWA — management by walking around).
The article concedes that email is an important management tool, but adds that it can hinder leadership and effective communications.
“Instead of meeting face-to-face, a manager dashes off an email to her troops thinking she is being efficient. She uses it for everything from feedback to training.”
The article says it is appropriate to use email to confirm matters (for example, confirming a meeting or highlighting points previously discussed); to inform people (meeting notifications or key information from a boss or client); or to acknowledge (acknowledging information received).
“[However] the key is to not use email when interaction between two or more people needs to take place.”
The article says one sure-fire way to know something should be said face-to-face instead of by email is when the email takes more than a few sentences to write.
“If that’s the case, erase your message and reply with a ‘Let’s talk’ instead and schedule a meeting. Or get up and go to the other person’s office.”
Writing in The Guardian, Lindsay Swan says management by email is “a hideously flawed but universally loved [tool]”, even when people have offices next door to each other.
“Talking is just so ‘yesterday’,” he notes disapprovingly. Swan says email wastes time and he has gone from adoration of the technology to believing it is the “scourge of the age. Or, more precisely, the pernicious practice of ‘reply to all’ in the wrong hands is.”
As an example, Swan writes that he has become part of an “unwieldy virtual loop” where everyone copies everyone else into one message.
“We have passed the point where anyone reads and responds sensibly to anything, but backs are covered by virtue of a message having been forwarded.”
Consultant Nancy Stern says she regularly sees communication problems in workplaces and often an over-reliance on email is at fault.
“It’s one thing to rely on email to keep in contact with people in another country, but it’s quite a different thing to rely [on] email to keep in contact with your co-worker sitting in the cubicle next to you.”
She says people are overloaded with email and she believes that many of these messages could have been communicated in person, thus minimising the chance of miscommunication.
One reason for over-reliance on email as a communication tool is that it is easier to confront someone this way when dealing with conflict, Stern says.
She gives the example of one employee who was told he was being made redundant via email.
“Complex and highly personal information … is not well-suited for email. There’s too much room for error, hurt feelings, guess-work and misunderstanding.”
Instead, says Stern, stick to email for impersonal and simple information, such as scheduling meetings or social events or following up.