401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

The worst mistake you can make when managing via email

RevenueJournalEmailManager_March10_2011[1]Take away email, and everything would stop. We’d then have to revert to stone-age methods such as phones and faxes. Almost all work instructions, discussions, and decisions occur via email.

Someone should be giving training courses on managing by email, because it’s easy to do it wrong. I’ve talked about email management before – the need for relevant, clear subject lines; and the need to change the subject line when the discussion takes a new turn, for example. But today I want to focus on the worst mistake you can make when you manage by email. “You” are the CEO, entrepreneur, or manager.

What is the worst mistake you can make? Not responding with an answer or a decision.

All day long, employees and vendors describe what they’re doing in emails addressed to their managers – then ask questions or ask for permission to take the next step.

The best email managers get back to the employee or vendor in a timely manner (within minutes or hours, depending on the urgency) with the answer or a decision. Or even more questions. But they point is, they respond.

No one is left hanging, projects keep moving along, and no one is frustrated or stressed out because they can’t take the next step.

The worst email manager doesn’t get back to the employee or vendor. This same manager wonders why it takes so long to get things done. He has absolutely no clue how much his own behavior is gumming up the works in his company. Instead of doing what they need to be doing, the least professional employees will start doing things that are non-productive. Or worse, interfere with the progress others are trying to make. They will surf the web, gossip, and respond to non-work emails. An idle keyboard is the devil’s playground. The more professional employees will turn their attention to less pressing tasks, which may or may not be important to your company’s progress. The vendors will turn their attention to other clients, lose momentum, and forget little details that needed to be remembered for the job to proceed properly.

For some reason, lack of response is more of a male thing. Some of the nicest, smartest, most professional male managers I know have this problem. The only reason people continue working for them is because they are so nice, smart, and otherwise professional. But this one aspect of their management style really drives their people crazy.

Usually these non-responsive managers are deep thinkers, who find it very difficult to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.” They like weighing all the tradeoffs. They think, “I’ll respond to this when I have time to do it justice” – and that time never comes. Or, something bothers them about the approach that the person is taking, but they aren’t sure what it is, and they don’t want to say anything until they’ve figured it out and can articulate it to their own satisfaction.

So, they put it off, causing unnecessary stress and delays in the workflow of their businesses.

If you’re seeing yourself in this article, congratulations. The fact that you recognize this tendency means there is hope for you.

Here are three concepts that will help you break this bad habit:

1) Give up on perfection. After helping so many managers for so many years, I have come to the conclusion that it’s better to act promptly than to act perfectly. You can always make improvements as you go.

2) Assume that it is better to say something than to say nothing. Even saying, “I’m not sure I agree with this approach, we need to talk” is better than saying nothing. You always have four options:
– Yes;
– Yes – but;
– No – and here’s why;
– Let’s discuss this (the more specific you are about what is bothering you, the better).

3) Accept your role as a decision-maker. Some of the nicest managers are afraid to make decisions because they don’t want to be seen as dictators. But once you are a manager, it is more rude to leave people hanging. You’re the leader. That’s how everyone else sees you. Someone has to be the leader; it’s the most important job. Accept the role. Re-dedicate yourself to being the best possible leader – including in the way you use email to keep the company machine going.

Everybody has had a bad boss. If you are a good one, people who work for you will take pains to preserve that situation. You will be able to keep the best employees for a long time.

The most effective managers are “benevolent dictators,” in the sense that they always respect and care for their employees and vendors, but they also accept their role as the ultimate decision-maker. The know they must make decisions, and they do so with enthusiasm.

One last note. Yes, it takes time to do emails. The best thing you can do is to be as brief as you can. Use bullets. Give people precise instructions. Don’t think outloud; state the conclusions of your thinking.

We are definitely working in the age of email management. Master it.


  1. Kristin –

    Wow. I’ve been guilty of behaviors called out in your Journal over the years, but this one really hit me between the eyes. Thanks, as always, for your insight.

    All the best

    Jim Foxworthy
    President, Pragmatic Marketing

  2. Absolutely true. It’s better to respond with something than nothing. Though I must admit, I’ve been unresponsive at times, I just can’t rationalize being unresponsive (with email) all the time. It still baffles me that email doesn’t receive the same priority as a face-to-face communication, simply because email can be asynchronous.

    Hey, I really enjoyed this post, and your tips. Looking forward to seeing your feed through my reader! 😀

  3. I recently had the opportunity to work with a very impressive leader who made quick, informative, strategic decisions day after day. One of the most impressive leaders I have worked with. But…his mode of operation did not include email. He had email and you could email him, but he let you know up front ‘if you need a decision, don’t email me…call me or see me’. I fact many emails went unread and unresponded to, so I quickly got the message and his cell phone number became my most used speed dial number. BUT many people didn’t heed the message and I heard and saw, just as Kristin wrote, employees waiting for replies to emails and time and tasks drifting away. To make it worse, they didn’t want to send another email looking for a response to the first email because they thought that was rude. So, I guess leaders have the option not to do email, but if so, they are going to have to find the right way to get their employees to communicate with them. I have not seen a case yet where that worked. Perhaps I should forward this article to them :)

  4. Yes, forwarding might be very interesting. This same article was forwarded by a reader to her father/boss, who then commented on the article in an email he sent out to his troops. It was wonderful to see – he was admitting his weaknesses, and vowing to improve, and asking his employees to help him do so. Whenever this happens I do a little dance in my office. My secret goal in life is to solve all these problems once and for all…it’s so silly for all of us to keep making these same mistakes.

    Because of the response to this article, I’m finalizing a Ten Golden Rules for Managing Via Email post, coming up soon…

    Thanks, Jill. Hope you’re well.



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