Frequently Checking Email Can Affect Managers’ Ability to Lead

By: Marie Donlon

According to research from Michigan State University, dealing with a steady stream of email traffic prevents managers from successfully leading their departments.

Managers and employees alike can expect to spend more than 90 minutes a day recovering from email interruptions, which adds up to more than seven hours a week.

"Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,” management professor Russell Johnson said. "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."

"Interestingly, we found that managers scaled back 'leader behaviors' more so than initiating 'structure behaviors,'" Johnson said. "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."

To reach their conclusions, researchers surveyed participating managers two times a day for two weeks, gathering data about frequency and demands of daily emails, their progress on core duties and how often they initiated and engaged in leadership 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 said.

Consequently, researchers report that employees suffer from this lack of effective leadership behaviors.

“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 said.

"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 said. "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."

The research is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.