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Is Your Inbox Holding Back Your Leadership Activity?

Is Your Inbox Holding Back Your Leadership Activity?

Check. Receive. Read. Respond. Email has become the key form of communication in the workplace. However, email overload is increasing leaders' stress levels and reducing their effectiveness, according to a new study by Ravi Gajendran, associate professor of global leadership and management at FIU Business.

The unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ongoing nature of daily email demands — in terms of volume, importance and urgency — draws work away from critical leadership behaviors, the study found.

"The results aren't really surprising," said Gajendran. "The cost for leaders of so many messages in their inbox makes them feel they're falling behind, leading them to put the important stuff aside to deal with the messages."

Recent estimates suggest that employees spend over two hours each day exchanging approximately 100 emails.

Gajendran's research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, indicates that a full inbox and a continuous flow of emails drives leaders to shift from activities such as meeting with and motivating employees, setting goals and creating opportunities for employees, to transactional duties. This is compounded by the expectation that each message will be read and responded to, more or less, when it arrives.

Gajendran pointed out that managers often don't understand how their email demands affect subordinates and the impact these demands have on their work priorities. "As a result, managers and leaders at the higher levels become lower-level polluters of their employees' inboxes," he said.

Work or email?

It's a tricky problem at the organizational level, noted Gajendran.

"Email is useful and relevant, but it can be a double-edged sword," he added. "Sometimes we're our own worst enemy."

The researchers recruited a sample of 48 managers who completed a one-time survey to assess their level of self-control and how central email is to their jobs. One week later, they received twice-daily surveys for 10 consecutive workdays, asking about email demands and perception of their work goal progress, as well as the leader behaviors performed that day.

They found that the greater the email demands leaders faced on any given day, the lower perceived work goal progress tended to be, which in turn shifted their attention away from leadership. However, for leaders who reported that email is more central to their work, email demands did not significantly impact their leadership.

The average employee takes more than one minute to resume work after checking email and checks email over 90 times a day, resulting in more than an hour-and-a-half of each workday recovering from email interruption.

Can you control email overload?

"It's hard to tell someone ‘don't attend to your email,'" said Gajendran. "There's no easy one-step solution."

Some choose to batch-process email, checking and managing email at set times throughout the day. Gajendran says managers should establish a routine to prioritize leadership versus responding to email. They should also inform others that on days when they have too much email, they can't perform many leadership-related duties or other responsibilities.

One final suggestion: turn off distractions. "You control your inbox," Gajendran said.

The paper was co-authored by Gajendran with Christopher Rosen and Lauren Simon of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas; Russell Johnson and Hun Whee Lee of the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University; and Szu-Han (Joanna) Lin of the University of Massachusetts, and Amherst .