Or are Meetings? Or Slack messages? Or Teams Channels? Or, maybe it’s simply us…
‘This meeting could have been an email!’ How many of us have uttered these words under our breath, sat in yet another pointless meeting? Meetings like these waste so much time, and reinforce such bad habits, that they are a huge factor holding back positive organisational change. But should it have been an email? Or perhaps something else? There is a lot of discussion about ‘no more emails’ and ‘no more meetings’ debates, but the problem is not just the medium we use to communicate, but the culture, intent, and real human connection and inclusiveness that are needed to create real collaborative leadership in organisations.
The Thread of Babel: Sending is not communicating
One reason email is so mis-used is because it gives managers the impression of collaboration: the idea that if we include enough people in the ‘conversation’, then everyone knows about what we are doing and what they are supposed to be doing. This myth persists, even though we know many employees simply won’t read all the emails that you send them. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Even in a best case scenario, email threads are hardly the place for collating and finding information. For example, people might only respond to the sender or a sub-set of recipients, and very soon your ‘conversation’ is a virtual tower of Babel. People will miss out on crucial information, their contributions get lost in an unstructured cacophony of contributions, and it becomes a mess.
Out of sight, out of mind, out of time
As soon as we ‘hit send’ on an email and tick off a task on our to-do-list, emails risk becoming ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Unless you go looking for it in the ‘sent’ folder, it won’t reappear until recipients respond to it, but in that space, the subject of the email is no longer your responsibility – it’s now someone else’s problem to act upon your instructions, information or request. The danger of email is always that it remains out of sight for everyone involved, right until it becomes a problem. People go on holiday, are off sick, accidentally delete an email or simply overlook an email because it’s drowned out in a gazillion other messages, and any progress made, solutions requested or provided, or procedural steps are easily lost to the void.
Non-Transparent leadership communications
Email as the default communicating and tasking tool within a hierarchy can also lead to a form of online disinhibition: people saying and doing things in a way that they would not consider using in public when observed by others. Indeed, it is so much easier for people inclined that way to be snarky, negative, or simply unkind to people when they feel that nobody but the intended recipient of the message will see what they say. Succumbing to online disinhibition in professional settings is bad enough, but it is particularly bad practice when it comes from a business leader or manager. David Maxfield talks about email landmines – surprise emails with often a negative connotation that strain relationships. They undermine trust because these landmines are placed in relation to avoiding responsibility and actual interaction by exerting or forcing power, and in doing so forcing the recipient to go about their way to diffuse it. There’s plenty of good advice on the dos and don’ts of email, like this recent FT piece by Tim Harford. The one example I might add that list is the ‘to whom it might concern email’, especially if it is used in lieu of any actual people management responsibilities. Sending your entire team emails to passive aggressively manage the flaws of one because you don’t dare to speak to them directly will likely not achieve anything at all with those ‘whom it did concern’, and instead will only increase resentment and anxiety among those ‘whom it didn’t concern’.
So, what then?
Should we stop using email to coordinate workplace communication and switch instead to more open comms using one or more of the many collaboration tools available today? Perhaps. But tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack are not without their flaws either. As Cal Newport argues, we don’t need a one-on-one replacement of the email inbox, but a workplace in which clear systems and processes – not haphazard messaging – define how tasks are identified, assigned and reviewed. It’s easy to to infer that reports of 51% of workers now preferring real-time messaging apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack over email mean that both employees and leaders prefer to work more collaboratively and transparently. But these platforms still allow people to work in the same closed off and unorganised ways if the switch from one app to another isn’t accompanied with clear communication, cultural intentions, strategies, processes, expectations, etc. Slack and Teams still have the option to manage by meeting and DMs, with all the downsides mentioned above. If organisations aren’t careful, they can end up with people doing the same things and making the same mistakes in Teams as they did in Outlook. There are great time/attention/mood saving benefits to be had by working in a modern collaborative way, rather than remaining a slave to wall-to-wall meetings an emails, but if we cannot make the switch to more human ways of working enabled by digital, rather than just technology-centred ways of working, and enforce this in all our human practices – from leadership responsibilities to day-to-day grind work – then things may not improve as much as we think. No amount of technology can replace the need for colleagues to see each other as other humans. No matter how hard some are trying to replace people with AI (hello ChatGPT!), in the end we’re only human and only we are human. If we keep trying to outsource our responsibility to treat each other like people to technology, the core of the problem will never be solved.