The Mindful Manager: Say No to "Management by Email"

Too little in-person communication can lead to sub-optimal management results.

Posted Oct 12, 2019

Over the past few years I’ve the seen the same scenario played out multiple times with individuals I’ve known or coached: An employee (or contract worker) receives relatively little feedback, and most of the feedback comes electronically (via email, text, etc.). Very little if anything negative is communicated by the manager, and the individual has a general feeling that he or she is doing fine in the job. But then at the end of the year, or the end of whatever the organization's performance cycle may be, the person is shocked: He or she is fired or receives an unexpectedly bad evaluation. With the message conveyed electronically.

Unsplash
Too much digital communication reduces the chance for meaningful in-person dialogue.
Source: Unsplash

The bottom line is that a good employee may often be out the door without ever having had a clear, serious, in-person conversation about what the job-performance issues really were.

Over-reliance on technology. While this is my perspective, it’s by no means only mine. In one recent survey from Randstad US, 56% of managers admitted using digital methods to deal with work conflicts “instead of discussing the situation in person or over the phone.” And it’s not only “conflicts” per se that managers are avoiding – it could be for example any performance-related conversation where difficult or stressful topics could come up… where corrective actions might need to be taken… or where substantive employee pushback may be received.

These are, no surprise, some of the difficult aspects of people-management, the inevitable confrontations that are an unpleasant but integral part of the managerial process. To avoid them altogether, or, has become increasingly common, to hide behind electronics when handling them, is in effect to “be absent" as a manager, to not really do one’s job and to shirk a fundamental element of the management role.

This brings to mind a conversation I had several decades ago with a colleague who was vice president of Human Resources. “The trouble with our managers,” she said to me one day in exasperation, “is that they just don’t manage!”  

"Being present" -- how mindfulness can help. A basic tenet of mindfulness is the importance of “being present” -- of seeing things as they are and accepting them. While I recognize of course this attribute wasn't intended primarily for management situations, it is what an effective manager needs to do. Management is no place for “conflict avoidance” but for seeing reality clearly and addressing it as it offers itself. In short, a mindful approach dovetails nicely with everyday management needs: Don't duck or avoid, stay "in the moment" and deal.  

What exactly is lost from a management perspective when we lean too heavily on technology and spend too little time talking directly in person? We lose the opportunity for complex rich dialogue, and replace it with an electronic monologue. Whereas if managers make the time to actually converse instead of sending a one-way message, they have the opportunity for meaningful give-and-take conversation, the ability to respond to body language or nuance or tone, and the chance to deal thoughtfully with new and changing issues as they arise. 

To be sure, the best managers already do this regularly. They see things as they are and act accordingly. Even when it involves hard uncomfortable conversations. But better to take them on than to manage in hiding from the digital world. Better to approach mindfully. In person whenever possible. With dialogue, not monologue.