It takes leadership to make people do brave things. But does it take leadership to reduce email overload? Motivating them to take risks, to stand up to formidable odds, to storm an enemy fortification, to jump out of an airplane – that is where a leader can have an impact for sure. By contrast, it hardly takes leadership to make a person do something that is neither brave nor difficult, and is in the person’s selfish interest: nobody requires a leader to lead them to eat strawberry ice cream, or to enjoy a weekend with their children, or to take a pleasant nap in the warm afternoon sun. Why would they? It’s all upside, after all – what’s not to like?!
So here is a bizarre exception, a situation where a great deal of leadership is necessary to make people do what is inarguably in their selfish interest. When it comes to email overload in an organization, leadership is practically a necessary condition for solving the problem.
The problem is ubiquitous and widely recognized: employees and managers in every organization on the planet suffer from a horrible overdose of incoming emails, text messages, WhatsApp alerts, Facebook updates, and so on ad nauseam. The outcomes are dire indeed, as this problem decimates people’s productivity, quality of work, creativity, effectiveness and quality of life. Everyone complains about it… yet very few seem able to do something serious to eliminate the problem on their own.
Not that it’s all that difficult: after all, email overload is the result of a frenzy of activity that is in large part unnecessary and useless. Much of the email inundating people’s inboxes is generated by their coworkers (and vice versa) for no good reason, and it would be in everyone’s interest to simply send less of it, restoring the tool to its original purpose from the 1980s: send important, useful messages required to perform the job at hand. It would also be in everyone’s interest to calm down and stop reacting to every incoming message alert as though it were a fire alarm.
And yet nobody sends less, nobody calms down, nobody cuts back. Not on their own they don’t.
The reasons for this are deep, and have to do with undercurrents of the organizational culture that involve mistrust, missing norms, over-competitiveness, and so on. Put simply, it’s a prisoner’s dilemma: if I send less email to my coworkers they will certainly benefit, but will I? What if they keep sending out more mail – will they get noticed and rewarded, while my altruism condemns me to obscurity?
And this is why in this domain, leadership is crucial. Consider the prisoner’s dilemma again: the only way to make people cooperate in this game is by changing the payoff table. If cooperation – sending less email – is rewarded, then people will send less of it. If sending silly pictures of cats to a large distribution list will get you a reprimand in your annual performance review, you will find better use for your time, and your recipients’. But only the group’s manager, who sits in the hierarchy above all the senders, can effect such a change in payoffs. Employees are very finely attuned to sense their boss’s desires, and if the boss makes the switch and truly believes in an email reduction program, they will react instantly.
Furthermore, the higher that boss in the organization, the wider the scope of his or her impact. A department manager can affect the mailing behavior within the department, but other departments will continue unaffected, impacting the first manager’s employees too. For a complete improvement, the general manger or CEO must be on board; that affects everybody inside the company. This is why the late W. Edwards Deming, the originator of Total Quality Management, used to refuse to consult at a corporation unless the CEO invited him in person; he knew that the culture change he was promoting would be certain to fail without top level leadership.
Once we accept that email overload is a cultural problem, it follows that you want to have senior management sponsorship for the solution program. You can still do a lot without it – teaching people how to process their inbox more efficiently, for one thing – but for a true transformation you want to recruit managers as high up as you can. Not an easy task, but well worth the effort!
Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.