Email distractions make bosses worse leaders

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Keeping up with email traffic places high demands on managers, preventing them from achieving goals and from being good leaders, according to a new study.

The researchers believe the work is one of the first studies to examine how distractions from email affect managers, their productivity, and their role as leaders.

Employees spend more than 90 minutes every day—or seven-and-a-half hours every week—recovering from email interruptions, the research shows. Managers are no different, and their distractions have further-reaching implications, says Russell Johnson, a professor of management at Michigan State University and leader of the study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Distracted leaders

“Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,” Johnson says. “When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager-responsibilities, and their subordinates don’t have the leadership behavior they need to thrive.”

Further, when managers feel overwhelmed and unproductive because of email demands, they recover by limiting leader behaviors and pivoting to tactical duties. This action, Johnson says, is strategic and intentional so that they feel more productive.

“Interestingly, we found that managers scaled back ‘leader behaviors’ more so than initiating ‘structure behaviors,'” Johnson says. “The former behaviors relate to motivating and inspiring subordinates, talking optimistically about the future, or explaining why work tasks are important; the latter are more concrete and task-focused, such as setting work goals, assigning duties, or providing feedback.”

So, not only are managers not managing—but they’re also focusing on smaller tasks for the sake of feeling productive.

Getting control back

To test how email demands hinder managers, Johnson and colleagues collected surveys from a group twice a day for two weeks. Managers reported their frequency and demands of emails, their perceived progress on core job duties, how often they engaged in effective transformational leader behaviors, and initiating structure behaviors.

“We found that on days when managers reported high email demands, they report lower perceived work progress as a result, and in turn engage in fewer effective leader behaviors,” Johnson says.

Beyond failing to complete their own responsibilities, email distractions cause subordinates to suffer from a lack of leader behaviors, or those that motivate and inspire.

“When managers reduce their leader behavior and structure behaviors, it has been shown that employees’ task performance, work satisfaction, organizational commitment, intrinsic motivation, and engagement all decrease, and employees’ stress and negative emotions increase,” Johnson says.

Importantly, Johnson says, leader behavior has a strong correlation to employee performance which, unfortunately, were the behaviors that got put on the back burner because of email distractions.

“The moral of the story is that managers need to set aside specific times to check email. This puts the manager in control—rather than reacting whenever a new message appears in the inbox, which wrestles control away from the manager,” Johnson says.

“As we cite in the paper, findings from prior research suggest that it takes time and effort for employees to transition between email and work tasks, so minimizing the number of times they have to make that transition is to their benefit.”

Source: Michigan State University