Email devours a lot of precious time. You can find loads of statistics supporting this, if you have any doubt. And as companies attempt to reduce costs while increasing efficiencies, you can bet that email usage isn’t decreasing any time soon. But when is email effective and when is it a waste of time?
As a management tool email is especially problematic. Effective managers build strong communication and rapport up and down working hierarchies. They also need something like “street cred“, the sense that they are in the trenches and can relate to what happens there. If a manager’s primary contact with the people he or she supervises is happens through media like email, earning and maintaining these credentials with a team will be difficult.
There simply are times when email won’t cut it. And if a manager overuses email, he or she becomes less of a manager and more of an anonymous blogger. Signing an email with a postage stamp mug shot smiling back to readers isn’t going to recreate a face-to-face experience, especially if the readers never scroll to the end of long, lifeless email to read all that has been written anyway.
The risks of using email seem obvious to me. Email can be a rambling excesses of grammatical misfortune and showy hyperbole. Who hasn’t received a particularly important email highlighted in bold fuchsia and finished with half a dozen exclamation points? If that comes from a supervisor, well…is that a good idea? Getting too wordy and too “fancy” can doom an email. It potentially undercuts its purpose which compromises the point of the message.
Too often email becomes too long — and sloppy — because it is so easy to add just one more good idea, one more link, or one more colored bold font. Focus on simple, clear, and necessary messages. Use creative highlighting features sparingly.
Overused email can numb an audience. They all start to look the same and become hollow and anonymous over time. If email is going to be effective, it should be concise, relevant, and meaningful…and, I dare say, rare.
Of course the message should be appropriate for email, too. Some topics, especially uncomfortable ones that might be tempting to deal with via email, are handled best face-to-face. And a manager wants that street cred. Of course calling a meeting or making a phone call takes more time, but you can communicate more complex and important ideas much more effectively in person.
If dialogue is important, skip the email.
Also skip email for major announcements that might require enthusiasm and buy-in. Don’t presume that your audience is enthralled with your leadership style and will hang on your every typed word. Sometimes there is no way to replace being there and being a real and physical part of the message.
Remember the great and powerful Wizard of Oz! Not until he came out from behind his curtain and revealed himself to Dorothy and the gang did he offer any real help. He might not have been “great and powerful” in an imposing fire-throwing sort of way, but he was an able leader nonetheless. If I remember the story correctly, Dorothy does get home and that was the point of it all, wasn’t it? Yes, it was…get out from behind that damn curtain and lead!