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To Be a Better Boss, Check Email Less (A New Study Suggests)

September 26, 2018 by Josh Hrala

Distractions at work can pile up for a ton of different reasons. Too many Slack messages? Too much time on the phone? Facebook? But what about email, the tried and true communication method for just about every organization on the planet?

Well, according to new research by a team from Michigan State University, bosses can get a serious boost by learning how to ignore their email accounts for a bit.

The team says that, on average, typical employees spends 90 minutes per day on email, adding up to 7.5 hours a week. That’s nearly a full day on just emails. The same can be said for managers, though their distractions can impact the business even more.

“Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,” said team leader Russell Johnson, from Michigan State University.

“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 behavior they need to thrive.”

In other words, paying too much attention to email responsibilities hinders leaders being able to actually lead. Instead, they spend what equates to an entire work day catching up with correspondence.

One of the coping tools, the team says, is for leaders to start focusing on more ‘tactical duties’ – smaller tasks – instead of true leadership duties, which makes them feel more productive but doesn’t actually work on paper.

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“Interestingly, we found that managers scaled back ‘leader behaviors’ more so than initiating ‘structure behaviors,” Johnson explains.

“The former behaviors relate to motivating and inspiring subordinates, talking optimistically about the future or explaining why work tasks are important; the latter are more concrete and task-focused, such as setting work goals, assigning duties or providing feedback.”

In order to find out just how much email was impacting leadership performance, the team decided to use surveys, which they sent to their test group twice per day for two weeks straight, examining how the respondents noted their job performance, perceived progress, and leadership behaviors.

When they analyzed their results, the team found that when leaders reported that they had large amounts of emails to maintain, they claimed to feel less productive and less able to provide actual leadership to their team.

“We found that on days when managers reported high email demands, they report lower perceived work progress as a result, and in turn engage in fewer effective leader behaviors,” Johnson recalls.

The real problem here is not that managers feel like they cannot complete their leadership duties. It’s that when managers cannot lead, their teams actually perform worse, leading to a runaway problem that can easily be solved by managers putting more emphasis on managing and less on the small tasks at hand – like constant email checking.

“When managers reduce their leader behavior and structure behaviors, it has been shown that employees’ task performance, work satisfaction, organizational commitment, intrinsic motivation and engagement all decrease, and employees’ stress and negative emotions increase,” Johnson said.

You’re probably wondering what the answer is then. If a manger cannot manage properly when checking email all of the time, what can they do? It’s not like a manager can simply stop answering email, right?

Of course not.

Instead, the team suggests that managers try to set aside specific times to check their mail and answer questions. According to the team, this allows the manager to have more power over their time management, allowing them to do both – answer emails and actually lead – instead of trading off between the two.

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“The moral of the story is that managers need to set aside specific times to check email. This puts the manager in control—rather than reacting whenever a new message appears in the inbox, which wrestles control away from the manager,” Johnson said.

“As we cite in the paper, findings from prior research suggest that it takes time and effort for employees to transition between email and work tasks, so minimizing the number of times they have to make that transition is to their benefit.”

So, if you find yourself worrying about email instead of your actually leadership responsibilities, the team suggests that you take control of the situation by consciously trying to negate the amount of time you spend checking in on emails by setting aside certain times throughout the day. Not only will this allow you to do your job more effectively, it will allow your team to do their jobs, too, because they won’t be so focused on waiting for your reply.

The team’s work was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Read the full report here

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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