Recently I received a forwarded email string between a CEO I advise and one of his Business Presidents.  His note to me said, “Can you believe this? His tone is so typical. I’m sending it to you, so I don’t blow up and respond badly. Any advice on how I should handle this one?”  Yes, pick up the phone.

I bet that sounds familiar. Time and again senior executives we coach get caught in an email string of miscommunication, often with too many people on the distribution list creating unwanted exposure and consequences. Aside from wasting time and emotion on managing the back and forth, leaders take the risk that subordinates are spectators to unnecessary and often confusing conflict between peers or members of a leadership team, without context or a way to process the intent or backstory. What’s worse is there’s a virtual “paper trail” that can be easily forwarded to create even more damage and impact beyond the exchange. 

Not surprisingly, one of the most common pieces of advice heard in leadership circles is “stop using email” to deliver important messages. More surprising is how hard it is for leaders to resist that temptation. Here is some advice to keep yourself, and your organization, safe from email harm.

Remember what is at stake

Speed, efficiency and impatience all contribute to misuse of email, but the costs can be high. Particularly for those in public companies, words matter – a lot. A single line can backfire and create lasting consequences beyond the email exchange. The press is filled with stories of leaked emails from corporate executives that create public and shareholder backlash: companies like Facebook and Google facing scrutiny of their management decisions and privacy practices all based on sloppy electronic exchanges. A recent notable example is a series of blunt late night blasts written by the WSJ Editor in Chief, Gerard Baker, to his reporters in frustration with what he considered overly opinionated coverage of President Trump. His efforts to preserve the integrity of reporting quickly devolved into a leak by a disgruntled member of the newsroom, raising questions about Baker’s support internally and causing unwanted questions about their practices.

Stay true to these communication guardrails

Given that “the mic is always on” for executives, it warrants revisiting our guidance on the guardrails around how information is shared:

STOP and delete your message if:

  • Your message contains feedback related to performance or behavior. It doesn’t belong in email. Meet in person, on video or pick up the phone.
  • Your message impacts roles or work assignments that haven’t already been shared with impacted staff. This type of information sets off alarm bells regarding status, job security and compensation. Have 1:1, live conversations with those impacted before organizational announcements go out.
  • You’re noticing misunderstandings in the email string that are escalating tensions – chances are you’ll make it worse if you reply. Take it offline and clear it up with a face-to-face conversation.
  • You’re typing emotional opinions, sarcastic jokes, off-color comments or using incendiary language – it will inevitably backfire. Don’t risk it, even if you think you have a forgiving audience.
  • You’re sharing confidential, proprietary or private company information. It will be none of those things.
  • You’re cleaning out your inbox and writing late night emails – chances are you’re tired (or jetlagged) and your nerves are worn thin. Save a draft and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning.

In executive circles it’s hard to fathom and easy to forget that your words are like the ripples in a pond made by a tossed rock. What on face-value starts as a deceptively simple exchange can have far-reaching impacts and implications for your leadership, and your company. Better to sleep on it first. 


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