Friday, February 17, 2012

An antidote to management by email

I once got a new business area manager (my boss' boss) who introduced himself to the consultants in his business area by sending a long email with instructions on how we should act if we would find ourselves in a situation without an assignment, or in "a situation of non-utilization" as he preferred to put it. Many of my colleagues who read his email didn't even know who this guy was, and only a rare few had actually met him in person even though he had been with the company for a few years.

That email really stuck with me. There is truth in the saying that first impressions last, especially when what you see is a person's behavior. I believe this was actually my first encounter with a person in a management position who practiced management by email to the extreme. After this experience I have become better at recognizing and spotting this style of management where managers rather hide behind Excel sheets, Word documents and lengthy emails than to meet people in person, even when it is possible to do so.

I am not sure that this style of management would have worked even in a factory in 1930's. I am sure the managers back then were much more present than many of today's managers, simply because they had to be physically close to the production to listen and learn what needed to be done so they could instruct the workers what to do. That's is also the problem with management by email; the lack of listening and lack of learning. If there is no listening, then communication also suffers. It will be hard to reach a mutual understanding of what needs to be done and how to get it done.

What this essentially means is that if you don't listen, you won't be able to communicate efficiently and you won't be able to lead people. Despite this, there are lots of managers practicing management by email and who think they are leaders. In my experience, lack of self-awareness is the common denominator for all bad managers I have encountered, so it is only natural that they think of themselves as leaders when they really aren't.

When looking at the increasing problems with employee engagement in many organizations today, I believe much of it can be blamed on lack of listening and communication, and ultimately lack of leadership, among management. These are the people who make decisions that affect people and their situations, and making those decision without knowing enough about the people and the situations they will affect is a sure path to failure and misery. Organizations require more and more of their employees, but management is not listening to them. There is no chance managers can empower their people to get the job done faster and better without listening to them and understanding what they need.

(photo from stock.xchng)

Unfortunately, the misuse (abuse) of tools such as email can increase the distance between the managers and the people doing the are supposed to be leading. Instead of leading, they divert most of their attention to reporting (pleasing their manager to safeguard their own positions) and primarily meet their people in the form of names in emails and Excel sheets. What they should be doing most of their time is to listen and communicate with their people, analyzing their situations and trying to figure out how to empower them to get their work done.

In a world where distributed and virtual organizations will become the norm, you need to find antidotes to management by email and general lack of listening, and you need them now before it is too late and all the talent has left the organization. This alone is a reason why organizations should look to replace broadcasting tools such as email and traditional intranets with social tools that allow rich and intreractive real-time two-way communication that help to bring people closer to each other by making them listen and communicate more. And why you should always aim to have face-to-face meetings whenever it is feasible and there are important and complex things you need to communicate about. These tools are the tools for real leaders, and it is easy to find the real leaders for the digital age in your organizations, simply because they find it wise to embrace these tools and learn new habits that make them better at leading virtually.

On a final note, to prove the truth in the saying "a fool with a tool is still a fool", my old business area manager also tried blogging for a while (because it was the cool new thing to do). But in the end he wasn't really interested in listening to what other people in his unit or elsewhere had to say. He just wanted to continue broadcasting. After a couple of months of broadcasting on the business area blog (which you could comment, but not from outside the firewalls where most people spent their time), he stopped and reverted to good old email. Foolish. Just sayin'.


  1. As always, great post Oscar. Tweeted your article.

  2. The tension between a need to communicate more widely and more personable is a tough nut to crack. The exact company has slipped my mind but I heard of a new CEO using a short video to say hi recently. Whilst I thought that had the possibilty of coming across a bit ‘distopian future overloard’, apparently it was very much welcomed and well recieved by the company. At least it puts a face and a voice to the words. Thanks for sharing the post, thought provoking.

    Luke W
    Community Manager

  3. Good afternoon Oscar, This is an excellent blog! I found your paragraph on listening skills lacking when using email as a management technique, I have to disagree with your point about face-to-face meetings being a key to leadership. After some initial in-person rapport is established, I think the skill of listening - to tone, to word choice, to silences - can be core success and the need to read body language cues can be overcome when leaders and participants use good virtual meeting skills.

  4. Well put blog. Having just been the recipient of just such team management by email, and trying not to fall into the trap myself, I stumbled across your blog via an idle google search. In my experience it's very easy to fall into the management by email trap - it's so easy to fire off an email and think job done. It's also why I remain ambivalent about remote working/virtual work spaces, particularly with a team that hasn't worked together before. It takes a deliberate change in behaviour and good availability of social network tools in the business for it to work.