"I'm not an email expert," I told my client. I was sensing that email management was a concern for the managers in this organization, and I wanted to make sure that I understood their expectations for my keynote at the conference.
"What I do is help people learn about how their brain works relative to their performance, so they can develop new habits to achieve the results they want and need to achieve as a manager. My message is much more around moving toward what you want (in this case, filling your team) than avoiding what you don't want (an overwhelming inbox)."
"Yes, that is what we want" was the response. "And maybe you could add in some email management tips just to help us get a handle on it all." I knew I could do that, so I set off to design the keynote.
There are several online sources for email management tips, like this one from Personal Excellence.co. As I perused what's available, these key tips kept coming up:
1) Recognize the Iceberg
Amy Gallo from Harvard Business Review blog, comments that "email overload is only a symptom of a larger issue: a lack of clear and effective protocols. If your organization has ambiguous decision-making processes and people don't get what they need from their colleagues, they'll flood the system with email and meeting requests. People then get mired down in their backlog, which leads to even more email and meeting requests from frustrated co-workers trying to follow up." Consider what's under the tip of your email iceberg. Is it lack of clarity about expectations? Lack of effective communication? Lack of trust?
2) Be the Leader
As the leader, you need to be the model that others will follow, and that goes for email management too. Clearly identify the kind of message you are sending (FYI Only, Action Required, etc.), only copy those who need to be copied on your messages, and talk about effective email practices at staff meetings to get others involved in sharing ideas about maintaining good practices.
Respond to high priority email immediately, which will cut down on the amount of email you get in the long run.
3) Keep it Simple
If your email message is over a paragraph long, it is best to walk down the hall or pick up the phone and have a telephone conversation with the person(s) involved.
Use the simplest, most basic language possible.
4) Actually Talk to People
Before you choose email over a more personal approach, ask yourself: Is there a potential for conflict here? Is the issue a complex one? Do I need buy-in from others to make this work? Are strong emotions present? Am I going to pay more later (with my time, energy, emotion) by sending email now rather than choosing a more interpersonal approach? If you answer any of these in the affirmative, choose face to face or telephone as your communication vehicle.
5) Slow the Flow
Scan your emails and unsubscribe to newsletters you don't read and notifications you do not care about.
Ask others who are copying you to remove you from unwanted or unnecessary messages.
6) Practice Reciprocity
Remember that you get what you give. Be cautious using the 'reply all' option. Do you really need to flood everyone else's inbox? Do you want yours flooded by mindless 'reply all' selections?
If an email upsets you, take a time out before you respond. No good things generally come from communication crafted and delivered while in a negative state.
6) Empty it Now
I know it sounds scary, but go right now and empty your inbox. If you see an unnecessary email, don't even open it, just hit delete. Create folders or use labels for your other messages.
Feel free to set up an 'I don't know' folder, for those messages that are unclear (you might be surprised at the number of messages that require no action what so ever).
7) Sort Immediately
With every email entering your inbox, either Delete it, Respond to it, or File it. I remember taking a time management course over 20 years ago, and a key take away I remember to this day is "touch each piece of paper (inboxes had paper in those days) only once." This is a good practice to email too.
9) Set Checkpoints
Establish a practice of checking email just a few times a day. Leave an auto-responder message indicating the times you check email (and a phone number for emergencies, if necessary). This will also help you the lead the way with your team around setting boundaries around email.
10) Break Away
Take time away from technology -- on vacations, while out shopping, and even while on break at work (you do take those, don't you??!). A break away can help you be more mindful about managing your email and making choices that work for you rather than against you.
Now that your inbox is less full, and you are less imprisoned a deluge of email, set forth to instil practices to fill your team. Some of the many possibilities include:
Give your team what they need most. Often you will find that what they need is some simple assistance from you. A vote of confidence to make a decision, certain tools to do the job properly, permission to vent (and then problem solve) about a frustrating customer/client experience.
When you find yourself wondering something as it relates to your team, invite them to answer it. Yup, it's that simple! If you want to know what motivates them, ask them. If you want more participation in meetings, ask for their ideas on how to get it.
Choose a strategy of co-creation. Rather than setting the vision and then rolling it out to your staff, help them to co-create the vision with you. No sell will be required if they are part of the creation.
Take time to celebrate small wins often. You don't have to wait for the huge milestone to be met. Celebrate several smaller moments along the way.
Someone out there would love to do the very things that you loathe. Take time to train them and then delegate the responsibility to them. Be available for questions (mostly at first) but leave the responsibility where it is assigned.
5) Have Fun
This is kind of a no-brainer. Just have fun. Period. Life is pretty darn funny if you take time to really look at it that way. If you aren't sure that your funny bone is as developed as you'd like it to be, you know there is someone on your team who would be glad to give you some ideas.
Remember that what you appreciate, grows. So take lots of time to notice what's good and to let people know what you appreciate about them. You'll find a lot of that coming right back to you.
Invest your time in your individual team members and the collective team. Sometimes that just means taking time to say 'good morning', or to ask about a personal event shared with you earlier. You will surely receive a high return on that investment.
Take some of the time that you would have spent sending email, and hang out where your team hangs out. Is it around the water cooler? Taking a break in the lunch room? Mosey on over and join in the conversations about life. Show your team that you relate on a human level. Share in a laugh.
Establish meeting protocols so that meetings actually serve to energize rather than frustrate your team. Your team will help you establish these because they know full well what will contribute to a successful meeting. Ask them.
Include energizing activities that infuse some positive emotion into your meeting. You might select a warm up exercise from a source such as The Bob Pike Group or The Thiagi Group. And, you can ask the team (have you noticed that asking your team comes up pretty frequently??). They undoubtedly have some experience to share with you.
Unplug from technology and plug in to people. You won't be sorry.