break free from email

A dysfunctional email culture can strangle productivity, keeping employees scrambling on the inbox hamster wheel. It can also undermine work-life balance, break down effective communication and suck the life out of your company.

That’s why Evernote CEO Phil Libin works hard to discourage email overuse among his employees.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is uproot any sort of e-mail culture at Evernote. We strongly discourage lengthy e-mail threads with everyone weighing in,” he told the New York Times. “If you want to talk to somebody and you’re a couple floors apart, I kind of want you to get up and go talk to them.”

But launching an email revolution isn’t as simple as creating a few policies for managing email use. A company’s culture evolves from a delicate mix of each individual’s values, attitudes and behavior. Leaders who go in with a hammer where a scalpel is needed will end up smashing more than a few bad habits—just ask the healthcare provider Aetna, which blew through four CEOs in five years before it landed one who could flip the company’s intransigent culture.

Here are some tips to help you clean up email use within your company’s culture:

Tell a new story.

As a leader, “changing an entrenched culture is the toughest task you will face,” says the Wall Street Journal. “To do so, you must win the hearts and minds of the people you work with, and that takes both cunning and persuasion.”

In the book Blue Ocean Strategy, authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne identify four primary hurdles to broad organizational change. The first is that workers must understand why the change is needed. The third is that they have to want it.

To win your employees’ hearts and minds, you need to change the conversations your company is having about email. Talk openly about the ways email is hurting the workplace, and help employees understand how shifting the culture will benefit them.

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Pull the thread on your current culture.

If you don’t address the underlying reasons your toxic email culture developed, it will keep reasserting itself despite your best efforts. To unravel this tangled web, find a loose thread and give it a tug by repeatedly asking the world’s most powerful question: “Why?”

For example, if you’ve noticed that employees tend to copy too many people on emails, find out why. The answer might point to a core lack of trust within your company, causing employees to adopt defensive email habits. Once you know how the existing culture developed, you can work to eliminate the conditions that trigger the undesirable behavior.

Model the change you want to see.

It’s easy to project the email problem onto everyone else. It’s harder to take a good, hard look at how your own email habits feed the current culture.

For example, if a manager sends an urgent email requesting an immediate response, and an employee who’s working on a big project misses it, that employee might learn that he can never ignore incoming emails in favor of getting work done. Furthermore, the manager has just sent the message that it’s acceptable to use email as an urgent delivery system.

Similarly, managers who habitually send emails after hours might unintentionally give the impression that employees are expected to work around the clock.

There’s growing evidence that simply altering the email habits of your top leaders can lead to organization-wide shifts. When the London-based company International Power aimed to cut the number of emails its executives sent by 20 percent, the end result was an overall 64 percent decrease in email use throughout the organization, translating to a 7 percent boost in productivity.

Cultural shifts take time. But by setting the right example for the rest of your company, you can start making a difference today.

Ready to get back on the email productivity track? ↓↓↓

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