Email is lip service, not leadership

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I once worked in a company with serious mobility issues.

As in, no one moved around in the building. Ever.

Instead, everyone chained themselves to their desks and sent email after email. It was maddening.

In my own department, our office doors were eight feet or less apart, with paper-thin walls that barely soundproofed a tiny throat clearing. I assumed our team would be on the same page based on simple acoustics and proxemics.

But I was shocked to watch as no one – NO ONE – ever even kept their door open, much less walked through it to visit others on the team. Even more bizarre was the fact that each office had huge internal windows, so everyone could see everyone else; we could all watch each other ignore each other, all day long.

My email inbox, however, racked up a year’s worth of inter-office correspondence in just three months – the majority of it conversations that could’ve happened in two minutes or less by simply stepping next door, with faster and higher quality results.

My supervisor was the worst offender, so I tried to instill some face-to-face interaction. I visited others’ offices often, to get clarification on a project or just to share some word of encouragement. I went old-school and hand-delivered hard copies for proofing, just to encourage contact. Sometimes I tried to be fun and tape them on people’s walls. Nothing changed.

Some tough love, leaders -- if you are responding to emails requesting revisions, feedback, approval or direction using any of these phrases, you are not leading anything or anyone:

  • “I like it!”
  • “Let’s talk about this!”
  • “Let’s schedule a meeting!”
  • “I agree!”
  • “Me too!”

At this particular company, I received emails like this, all day, every day – as responses to my requests for budget constraints, compliance verification and collateral approval. They provided zero information and were only sent, I believe, to forge electronic “proof” that the sender was at work that day and supposedly working. (And yes, all of them were sent as “reply all,” which makes them even worse.)

These responses are not leadership. They are not project management. They are not commitments of time or energy. They are not even substantive communication.

So here’s your leadership challenge: every time you’re tempted to send an email response that’s four words or less, STAND UP. 

Then look down.

See those two things at the ends of your legs? They’re called feet. Put one in front of the other until you reach the sender’s office and have an actual conversation.

“But I’m really, really busy!” you cry. Too busy to invest fifteen minutes and a bit of shoe leather to let a colleague know they’re important and worthy of human contact? Then your corporate culture must suck or your company’s operations are dysfunctional, or both.

“But email was invented to make us more efficient!” you wail. That’s a lie. Email was invented to compensate for geographic challenges, save trees and allow for fast and cheap mass communication. Email was NOT invented to substitute for authentic, face-to-face communication.

“But I don’t want to bother my team members!” you protest. Did you know that the top complaint among employees is poor communication? Your team wants to know and understand the organization’s strategic plan, top priorities and what they can do to move the company forward. Your team wants feedback on its work, and how it’s contributing to the bottom line. And your team wants to be recognized and appreciated. If you think you can accomplish all that via email, then know that your team won’t be your team for long.

Open your doors, leaders. Open your eyes and ears and stop hiding behind email because you’d rather coast through your leadership role, instead of actually exhibiting the high-energy, high-standard behaviors of effective leadership.

And for the love of all things holy, STOP using “reply all.”