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The Perils and Pitfalls of Leadership Emails–and 6 Tips to Avoid Them

When Rick forwarded the email of his new job description to all of his colleagues, he forgot the notes he’d appended to himself below, which highlighted sensitive information, including the salary range of his boss.

Have you ever hit send and then wished you could hit undo? Although sometimes you can recall an email, many times it’s too late. Whatever you’ve written and how you felt when you wrote it is out there for the world to see.Tips to avoid leadership email problems Here are 6 tips to help you stay out of trouble and get the results you want.

1. If you are angry or upset write a draft. Do NOT hit send. I know of one leader who was so frustrated that she wrote in response to a report she’d just received, “Bill, this is garbage. Can’t you get your team under control? I want this redone immediately.”

Now, I have to tell you, I saw that report. It wasn’t garbage. One of the most cathartic feelings in the world can be to write out our frustrations. That said, nine times out of ten–no, let’s make that 9.9 times out of ten–if we are really upset, what we write may be our own truth of the moment or just a venting of our frustration. It will not be a productive way to communicate. So, when you are really frustrated, write a draft. The safest way is to write it in a Word document. Put your draft away, overnight if possible, but at least for an hour. Then, reread it, copy and paste–and only then hit send.

2. Remember, whatever you send in an email can be forwarded. Be very careful. In the example above, that particular leader was having a bad day. Unfortunately, the direct report she sent it to forwarded her email to his team, and yes, well, you know the story. It ended up being an incredible demotivator for a group of employees who were working hard to put out some excellent work under extremely difficult circumstances.

3. Refuse to forward punishing or defamatory information. Nobody wins by receiving an email with nasty or pejorative comments. When leaders must provide critical feedback, one-way communication such as an email is never acceptable. Sensitive topics and communication must happen face-to-face. Or, if that isn’t possible, voice-to-voice, so that the recipient can ask questions and together you can resolve the issues.

4. Write a compelling subject line. The most important element in any email is the subject line. Your direct reports and colleagues are as busy as you are. If you don’t give them a reason to focus on your message, they may not open it in time to take the actions you want them to take.

I once worked with an executive who was desperately trying to introduce and manage change in his department. Three out of four times, his subject line would read “Important Information.” The problem was that after a while it was like the boy who cried wolf, and people didn’t respond as quickly as he wished. Finally, after one brave colleague suggested he summarize his critical information in the subject line, he began to get the attention he wanted. Instead of “important information,” he wrote subject lines such as: “Reports due by Friday at 10:00.” “Customer Feedback Report–Your Input Required by 5/15.” And, so on. Think about your subject line like this. If that was all they read, would your readers have an idea about the contents of your email?

5. Never forward an email from someone else without rewriting a pertinent subject line. Emily reported to a Marketing executive in a company that was undergoing a company-wide transformation. People worked around the clock to analyze customer needs, redo their digital marketing strategy, and transform their websites, trade show tactics, and overall approach to the marketplace. On average, team members received about 100 emails a day–many from their leader.

Unfortunately, this leader forwarded dozens of emails with processes, examples, and reports from current and former colleagues. He believed that the information they contained would accelerate the organizational change he wanted. What he neglected to do was change the original sender’s subject line to one that was meaningful and related to what he wanted his team to do with the information. An email with a subject line that read, “Company XYZ’s Customer Metrics for July,” didn’t seem critical when people received it. But when they finally opened the email and read his instructions, they learned their boss wanted to adopt a similar process, and he was frustrated that several days had gone by. Yeah, yeah, I know if something is from your boss, it’s a good idea to read it, but the fact is if anyone receives 100 emails in a day, one that does not seem hot may go unnoticed. He did this a lot.

6. Include just one main topic or action per email. A friend of mine once received an email that listed several job descriptions and examples of how to write a compelling resume to get an interview in a field she was extremely interested in joining. At the bottom of the email, her colleague had included a job opportunity. Unfortunately, my friend was going out of town, and didn’t see the most important part of the email until she returned.

By that time, the job was closed. The sender could have avoided this issues by sending two emails with separate headings:  1) Job Opportunity–Check it Out! and 2) Resume Examples for Project Manager Jobs in Information Technology. The first is clearly time critical. The second just as clearly not.

Email is an important communication tool in our crazy, busy worlds if we are to stay in touch. As leaders we just have to remember that once something is written and sent, it’s out there for all the world to see. Our goal is to get the results we really want. So, on those tricky, difficult days when you don’t have two seconds to rub together, take a breath and read what you’ve written before you hit send.


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