Many managers are getting sucked into an incredible vortex of busyness and daily fire fighting. It’s becoming a bigger and bigger challenge to keep themselves and others focused and strategic in this 24/7, always-on, Blackberry culture. This is a large and rapidly growing problem that we are seeing in more and more organizations. When left unchecked, the problem leads to burnout, turnover, morale problems, frenzied everything-is-urgent wheel spinning, and poor execution.

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Beware the Busy Manager,” Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal report on their ten years of studying effective and ineffective managers. “Managers will tell you that the resource they lack most is time…If you watch them, you’ll see them rushing from meeting to meeting, checking their e-mail constantly, fighting fires – an astonishing amount of fast-moving activity that allows almost no time for reflection…Managers think they are attending to important matters, but they’re really just spinning their wheels…Fully 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. A mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.

“The problem has become so bad with some of our Clients that management teams have established a ground rule to check their Blackberries at the door when entering meetings. Picture a row of identical Blackberries with Post-It-Notes identifying the owner with their red blinking message light flashing on the table beside the coffee pot. Good for them! They recognize the problem and have acted on it. In other organizations, weak leadership and poor time and priority discipline are causing meetings and planning sessions to deteriorate in a complete waste of time as participants rudely check e-mail (many try to hide what they are doing while someone else is talking), take phone calls, and allow others to come in and pull them out of the meeting. It’s a serious case of Attention Deficient Disorder that is dumbing down far too many groups. Research shows that multi-tasking reduces our ability to concentrate by 10 – 15 IQ points. That drop isn’t something many of us can afford! Drops in group IQ must be two or three times that — call it “unsynergy.”

Taming the E-mail Beast

I love and hate e-mail. It’s a highly effective tool in so many ways. But like any tool, it can easily be misused and abused.

Most managers are doing far too little to mitigate the destructive and wasteful effects of e-mail misuse. Like a B-movie, the e-mail monster keeps growing larger and consuming more time and resources (“E-zilla: The Insatiable Beast”). Some of the more common abuses I hear about in my workshops are:

  • “CC-ing the World” – far too many people are copied on far too many messages that are either of remote or some interest or a classic case of CYA (cover your bum).
  • Hiding Behind E-mail – difficult news or tough feedback is cowardly delivered through this impersonal channel.
  • Flaming E-mails – insensitive, inflammatory, or negative comments are fired off with an aggressive or hostile tone that wouldn’t be used in a personal conversation – like some mild-mannered people who become aggressive drivers behind the wheels of their big honking SUVs.
  • Over Reliance on One Message/Channel – important decisions, “discussions,” or directions are fired out and everyone is expected to give this one e-mail the immediate attention and urgency the sender feels it needs.
  • Stringing the Pieces Together – recipients are expected to follow a long and convoluted discussion in reverse chronological order

With the huge amount of time being sucked down the e-mail sinkhole each day, many teams can get a fast and large return on their time investment by getting together – in person – to establish e-mail protocols. Here are a few ideas your team might consider:

  • Get an idea of how much time everyone is currently spending each day on internal versus external e-mails.
  • Set a target for the number of e-mails you would like everyone to have to deal with each day.
  • Have everyone do an analysis of their inbox for the next few weeks and categorize the e-mails as to type, importance, relevance, etc. Aggregate those individual logs to see the overall trends.
  • Agree on the criteria for when e-mails are not appropriate. This might include whenever an issue is sensitive or difficult, has potential for conflict or misunderstanding, needs discussion, calls for collective brainstorming, personal feedback, etc.
  • Agree on the criteria for categorizing e-mails by level of urgency, information only, decision needed, who should be copied, etc.
  • Learn (or review) how to lead and participate in effective meetings with agendas showing the purpose (information giving, decision required, problem solving, input needed, etc.), desired outcomes/objectives, decision making process to be used (command, consultative, consensus), and time allocated for each agenda item.
  • Periodically review your team’s e-mail usage by asking everyone what you all should keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to ensure e-mail is an enabling, rather than enslaving, tool.

Many managers are great at supplying information, but they’re not so good at communication. In this “information age,” our organizational lives are overflowing with e-mails, voice mails, phone calls, newsletters, books, articles, manuals, and web pages. Like the sailor marooned in a lifeboat on the high seas, we have water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. We suffer from a profound lack of communication. Too many managers over-inform and under-communicate.