Three Emails Leaders Should Never Send

Ahhhh… the allure of email. With a few keystrokes we can set things in motion, communicate with many quickly and easily, move things off our “to do” lists by putting them on other’s “to do” lists. It’s easy. It’s fast. It can be done at any time, just about anywhere, and from about any electronic device.

Ohhhh… the email traps we fall into. We think we are perfectly clear and then the resulting action shows us we were not. We respond to words only – and miss the emotional tone of a message. We rationalize that more people copied means better communication – only to be bombarded by the strange twists and turns as people begin to “reply all”.

Not all emails are effective.Augh… the angst we, as leaders, can cause with emails that should never have been sent. Damaged relationships. Time wasted on unproductive efforts. Email overload that is confusing at best and counter-productive at worst.

As a leader, you set the tone for communication in your area. What you do and say is modeled. An email from you carries more weight than those from peers. As such, your email etiquette and behavior can either help your team be more productive or totally trip them up.

Here are three types of emails that a leader should never send. And I do mean never!

1. Bad News

News that will elicit concern or negative emotions is always better delivered in person. This includes performance improvement feedback, customer complaints, and organizational realignments. Talk in person if possible. If not, call. Always deliver tough messages in person, where emotional tone can be discerned, questions can be asked and people feel valued as individuals.

2. Rants

It can be very tempting to fire off your emotional reaction to certain situations. Poor team performance. Upper management decisions you deem misguided. Customers, suppliers, regulators or other areas of the company that make your work difficult or your team look bad. Find other ways to vent; ways that do not create a permanent e-trail that can be misinterpreted, taken out of context, or forwarded on to others. Breathe. Take a walk. Write it on paper and throw it away. Then refer to #1 above.

3. Time Wasters

As the leader, you set the tone and others follow your lead. If you send one email of a cute puppy, you grant permission for others to send cute puppy emails, funny kitten emails, and who knows how many other time-wasters. If you gossip via email, multiply that by the number of people on your team.

Of course those are the obvious time wasters. There are many others to be aware of:

  • Sending wordy and poorly organized emails. Without doubt, it takes more time for you to write a short, concise, and clear email. It’s not easy, but taking an additional 15 minutes to avoid sending a vague and sloppy email saves much more time for everyone that receives it.
  • Sending an email without a clear direction. Is this for information only or do you expect action? If so, be clear about what action you’d like others to take, and set a clear due date.
  • Copying more than 3 people on the CC line. When you find yourself copying a long list of individuals, ask yourself why? If you can’t articulate what they will do with the information in the email, chances are they will not be able to either.

One of the most important things you do as a leader is to communicate, and to communicate well. Your use of electronic communication is vital as so much communication is delivered this way. Avoiding these types of emails won’t make you a stellar communicator, but will help you avert obvious mistakes.


In my executive coaching I see plenty of folks plagued with this problem: They are smart. They have deep expertise in their field. They are competitive and are on the hunt for the next promotion. And they have an almost uncontrollable need to prove just how brilliant they are.

This compulsion can show up in many ways. Here are some of the ones I’ve seen:

  • Lecturing
  • Judging (sometimes with caustic remarks, sometimes just sighing, sometimes rolling of the eyes)
  • Exasperation at those who “can’t get it”
  • Consuming most of the air time
  • Continually reminding others of their credentials, experience and past successes
  • Disdain for the current ways of doing work or ideas that are not their own
  • Grandstanding
  • Dismissing other points of view
  • Putting others down so as to elevate themselves

Unfortunately, these actions work against them. Even when they are smart and capable and driven.

Far too often once people realize they are being diminished and have little chance to engage in a positive way, they revert to other means.

A few brave souls may push back, only to be shot down by the “smart one”, and others learn by observation that engaging directly is not the best strategy. And so meetings become dead space, where folks tune out while the “smart” one drones on. They may nod, but there is very little doing. Passive aggressive behavior surfaces, with the goal being to show “the smart one” that they are not so smart after all.

The “smart” one is so self-absorbed that trust is virtually impossible to achieve. Credibility suffers. Even if the “smart” one has a good solution, they lack the buy-in for their ideas and solutions so the chance for success diminishes.  No one is willing to challenge, so critical information doesn’t surface. Ideas don’t improve. Energy is sapped.

Contrast that to folks that are more wise than smart. Those that are wise deeply know some universal truths:

  • That they may be really smart in some ways, but that there are others in the room that are smarter in other ways
  • That teaching, not preaching, moves the group forward
  • That trust trumps respect – and you don’t earn trust by grandstanding
  • That creating connection and safety is what enables others to open up enough to bring forward good ideas and to push back when needed

Concerned you might tilt more toward smart than wise? If so, self-awareness and self-monitoring are key. Paying attention to:

  • Your talk/listen ratio
  • Your comfort with others adding to your ideas
  • Your willingness to accept constructive challenges
  • Your inner voice
  • Other’s reactions to your comments and ideas
  • The energy in the room

A great rule of thumb: When in doubt, just shut up and listen. Really listen. You may be surprised at what happens. Chances are, by allowing others to show their brilliance, yours too will be seen.

Organizations Built for the Future

Late last year I was able to check off a bucket list item of mine: to do a TED talk. I spoke about the need to shift our worldview from one of striving for stability to one of dealing effectively with continual change, in a talk entitled “Is Stability What We Should Strive For?”  You can see the full 18 minutes below, and I’m interested to hear your comments and thoughts.

At the end, I describe some of the characteristics of emerging organizations that are thriving (rather than thrashing) in our global, networked, connected, hyper-fast, technologically driven world. It is an interesting list – and I wonder how your organization stacks up to it, where:

  • Organizations are built for change and agility – by design. Where core processes like HR and accounting provide stability, but most every others area is freed to focus outward, experiment, and quickly change.
  • Jobs are flexible – depending on what is needed now – and knowing that what is needed now may not (and likely will not be) what is needed 2 years from now. And that’s OK.
  • People are seen as investments, and not expenses. Where what matters is not how little headcount you can get by with, but what is in the heads of the people you do have.
  • All understand that learning is the job of a lifetime – and doesn’t end when you get your degree.
  • We look forward more than backward; creating as well as problem-solving.
  • New ideas are expected, encouraged and nurtured, rather than being dead on arrival and greeted with a chorus of “that won’t work here”.
  • Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization – not just in certain departments or from select people or relegated to places called “skunk works”.
  • There is deep understanding that innovation requires testing and that not all tests succeed. Where failure is expected and seen as a natural part of the process, not a career killer.
  • Once an idea is proven, there are processes in place to quickly execute on it – to bring it to market or to implement it. Not years – perhaps months or at best quarters.
  • There is a rigorous “letting go” of what is not working – quickly, efficiently and in all areas.
  • We abandon this notation that the leaders in our organizations should be omniscient and all powerful and always know the way, but instead that together we can find the way.
  • Leadership can arise from anywhere in the organization – and it is expected that leadership is shared. That no one person has a monopoly – and work is done knowing that “we” are better than “me”.
  • Work gets done in a network, a messy web of interaction – that is done across the organization and across the globe.
  • We abandon rigid hierarchy as too rigid, too slow, and too formal to make decisions quickly, and too distant from people with the best view of the situation.
  • Organizations, big and small, realize that their remit is bigger than just short-term profits and a financial bottom line. That they impact people and the planet and that matters just as much as creating stockholder wealth. And that the better people and the planet fare, the more sustainable the organization is in the long term.


Do Emotions Have a Place at Work?

Businessman showing emotionI had a recent conversation with a leader in a large company who made the statement, “It would all be better if only people would just come to work and do their work, and leave their emotions at the door.”

The statement left me wondering just what emotions one should check at the door. At first I thought the comment was really saying, “Don’t bring negative emotions to work.” Things like frustration, grief, sadness, anger, fear, or indignation. Did he really not want his folks to bring joy, wonder, humor, caring, passion, excitement, kindness, trust, courage, or respect?

We didn’t have a chance to have a deeper conversation, but as I’ve thought about it more, here are my observations about emotions at work:

  • There is a prevailing belief system, based on Fredrick Taylor’s mechanistic view of work: the more machine-like we are, the more productive we become, and the easier people are to manage. The roots of this are in the “assembly line” view of work – assign a task, do it efficiently, and do not rock the boat. 114 years later, this very first management consultant’s views still shape how we lead. I think he was wrong.
  • There is a general discomfort with “negative emotions” – many leaders are ill equipped to deal with sadness, anger, grief or fear. In fact, showing these emotions might even be a show stopper for your career progression. Never mind that sadness means you care, the anger may be justified, the grief over real loses, and fear well deserved.
  • I believe that this aversion carries over to “positive emotions” as well. Even though we claim we want happy, passionate employees who care about their work, I’ve seen folks who exhibit these emotions too openly to be ostracized as well.

I don’t want to work with humans that act like machines – I want to work with humans that are human. And that means they bring both intelligence and emotion with them. They are smart AND have heart.

I want to work with folks who are passionate, and who care, and who aren’t afraid to show it. I want to work with others who are brave enough to step up and out and have the courage to do so. I want to work side by side with others who show up fully, as they really are – which means at times they are happy and other times they are sad. Who get indignant when things are unjust, and have the courage to do something about it. Who care, and because they do are sometimes disappointed and hurt. Who exhibit a full range of emotions, knowing fully that one can’t be courageous without at the same time overcoming fear. Who can fully experience happiness because they have known the depths of sadness. Who can be fully present when I’m angry, upset, frustrated or discouraged; not fixing, not avoiding, not judging. Who can just sit with me and sit with the emotion and trust that it’s OK. Who can acknowledge that I’m human too – and that emotions (positive and negative) bring spark, passion and creativity.

So would we be better off if we “checked our emotions at the door” before going to work – I say resoundingly NO! It might be less messy and less uncomfortable – but it also is dull, lifeless, sterile and inert – not a place where I can bring my full self and contribute fully.

Traits are Assigned a Gender – Leadership is No Different

Research shows that when presented a list of leadership actions, people easily designate them by gender. Look at the following list, and I suspect you too will be able to quickly categorize them as masculine or feminine.

  • Command
  • Compete
  • Collaborate
  • Nurture
  • Communicate
  • Emote
  • Direct
  • Assert
  • Relate

Crossing gender lines is fraught with social peril. Female leaders who command are called names I can’t print. Men who emote are seen as weak and ineffectual. Which brings us to the classic question: Are gender differences genetic or learned? Nature or nurture? Hardwired or socially scripted? Scientists have struggled with this question for centuries.  I don’t have the answer, but I do have some observations based on the statistical concept I call the tyranny of the tails that may provide some insight.

Observation 1: Gender differences show up the most in the extremes
Let us use height to make the illustration, which is easy to measure. Whether you quantify the heights of men and women by observation or by careful scientific study, the conclusion is the same. Women, as a whole, are shorter than men.  No matter the country, men have a height advantage. The average height of a man in the United States is 5’10”; for a women it is 5”5”. It is fair to say that generally the tallest people in the room will be male and the shortest will be female.

While true, it is also true that there is great overlap in the mid ranges across genders. I know lots of men and women in the 5”6” to 5”8” ranges. It is only at the extremes of height that men are more likely to be represented for tall and women for short. Most men and women fall smack dab in the middle.

This graph, displaying height and weight for men and women, and caption were adapted from the course "Constructing Gender in American Society," given by Paul Sargeant, SDSU Sociology professor. This particular image is ©

There is great overlap in the two bell curves – and it is at the extremes that the biggest differentiators show up. Most of us, men and women, fall between 5 feet and 6 feet – and the bell curve shows us that men and women are more alike than different.

Observation 2: We simplify as a survival strategy.
We are confronted with a dazzling array of data and sensory experiences. It is far easier to create two categories (tall/short) than a myriad of them. It takes much less brain power to generalize and say that men are tall and women are short.

Observation 3: This simplification creates stereotypes that may be true in the aggregate, but can undermine the individual.
Tall women may find it difficult to date shorter men, as there is a social view that the man should be the taller one (and it is somewhat embarrassing to both if the woman is taller). Short men are not always seen as masculine as taller ones. We even have a name for this: the Napoleon complex or short man syndrome.

Observation 4: We begin to link these gross generalizations tighter in ways that defy logic.
Taller men have a selection advantage when vying for positions of leadership due to this. Here is an example of how our flawed (and subconscious) thought process works: tall men are seen as more able leaders, even though height has little to do with leadership itself, only our perception of masculinity and leadership.

  1. Men are tall
  2. Leadership is a male domain
  3. Therefore, tall men must be better leaders

Observation 5: In reality, most human traits appear in a range.
There are hyper-competitive folks, and extremely non-competitive folks – but most of us fall somewhere in the middle, both male and female. Competitiveness (or any other trait) may have a slight gender bias, but is not gender exclusive.

This is the tyranny of the tails… when we attribute gross characteristics of a large population to everyone within it – and do not acknowledge individual variation or that the range of “normal” encompasses far more. While we are more alike than different, we differentiate based on the extremes. This may be a shortcut, but it leads to faulty conclusions, actions and characterizations.

So I encourage my competitive female friends and my empathic male friends, and others I know who defy narrowly defined gender stereotypes, to claim who they are.  And I challenge each of us to recognize when our thinking is flawed by the tyranny of the tails and then to step back, readjust, and get a clearer view – even if it might be a bit more complex and individualistic.

Where has the tyranny of the tails tripped you up?

Learning from the Big Guys

I’ve been enamored with action learning from the moment I learned about it. Perhaps it is because I personally learn by doing. Perhaps it is because I like things that are elegant, simple and effective. Perhaps because it marries on-the-job learning with formal learning – extracting the best from each.

Action learning is intentional, supported learning that occurs while doing real work. It is focused on specific learning goals, so it takes the randomness in which we normally learn on-the-job out of the way. The learning is in support of the work, so it removes the disjointedness and isolation of many formal learning programs.

Large companies have used this methodology for years. Since they are large, their programs are rich, complex and come with a price. They construct global teams and get them together quarterly. They bring in the best speakers. They have full time staff running the program.

All good and wonderful if you have a large budget and the right staff. But I am an advocate of stripping out the best of the methodology and paring it down to its essence so that action learning can be used with smaller groups and with less budget.

Here are the core elements:

  • A group that works together on a project that meets these criteria:
    • It is “real” work that needs doing, that is highly visible with results that matter
    • Learning goals can be associated with the project. These can vary from person to person, but each person should have line of sight on what they want to learn.
  • The learning is supported, typically by a facilitator or convener. This person organizes the project, helps to set learning goals, and convenes the group on a regular basis. In the group sessions, the facilitator helps the group to distill their learning through reflection, exploration and questioning.
  • Formal learning (classroom sessions, reading, conference, etc.) is identified to support the project.
  • There is a culminating event in which the project results are presented and the learners get feedback from those who chartered the work.

While action learning has a few more moving parts than some of the other low-cost/high-impact methodologies we’ve explored, if you have someone who has the ability and the time to organize and lead an action learning group, I believe that you will find high value in the process.

We’ve explored 4 different low-cost/high-impact skill development tactics over the last four posts (reflection, debriefing, mentoring, and action learning). I’m curious – what did I miss?  What would you add to this list?

The Morning After: What We Can Learn from Sports Teams and the Military

Organizations can learn from military debriefingsDebriefings (AKA after-action reviews) are great ways to increase the performance of your team. The military and sports teams know this – yet many organizations have yet to learn or perfect this technique. Instead of learning, they plow through to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, repeating the same mistakes, working with the same inefficiencies and experiencing the same frustrations.

The idea is simple: at a designated time, circle up the team members (and customers too, if you are brave) that have been working on a project or initiative and hold an open and frank dialogue about what is working, what is not and what you have learned.

As you gather, remind your team of the purpose of the session, which is to learn and to get better. Then set some ground rules. Some that you might consider include:

  • No subject is off limits.
  • Our goal is to get better, not to lay blame.
  • Discuss what went well and what did not.
  • Everyone has a voice.

It is helpful to assign a note taker or scribe. That role can be rotated so that it is not a burden to one person. This role is to take notes, record them and distribute them to all participants.

To begin, have a few prepared questions. These are typically open-ended questions that spur discussion. They can be as simple as:

  • What did we do especially well?
  • What made that happen?
  • What do we want to improve in the future?
  • What will it take to do that?

You’ll want to leave some time for other comments or questions. A great way to set this up is to ask,  “What have we not discussed that we really need to?”

As you lead the debriefing, model the way by sharing candidly and non-judgmentally. You can listen carefully and ask follow-up questions. You can be curious and not defensive. Finally, you will want to thank others for insights and perspectives.

To end your debriefing, summarize what was shared. Most likely there will be action items, so ensure that the scribe knows what they are, who is responsible for completing them, and when they are due.

As you repeat these on a regular basis, you’ll find that your team begins to open up with each successive debriefing session. Your ultimate goal is a frank and candid conversation in which your team aims for a very high bar, and is willing to challenge and hold each other accountable to ever-increasing levels of performance. That is the true sign that they have learned how to get better as a team and individually.

Are Great Teams Developed on Challenge Courses… or in the Trenches?

It’s not unusual for me to get a call about developing teamwork. What the potential client is usually inquiring about is my availability to lead a team retreat. At times that may be a high-challenge outdoors event, like climbing 100 foot vertical walls all tethered together, or flinging team members, one by one, over Army style obstacles. Sometimes leaders want some deeper, inner reflective work, or time to get away to strategize and plan. And sometimes it is a mix.

The hard reality is, that teams are not built in a day. And they are not built on an obstacle course or high ropes adventure. They are built in the trenches, doing real work that has real consequences. Some of the best teams I’ve been a part of faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge that required every single person to contribute more than they thought they had to give. Over time, day by day, with each task completed, each step taken – trust begins to form. Relationships gel. Pride blossoms.

Team retreats can have a valuable place in building a team, but think of them as a dress rehearsal rather than the real event. You can take teams out of their work environment, and when presented a challenge – like high ropes – they bring along their tried and true work patterns, both functional and dysfunctional. Watching teams tackle a challenge like this is a mini-study in how they operate back at work. As such, retreats with team challenges can be very effective in understanding your team’s unique dynamics. They also provide time, space and a process to reflect on what is working and what is sabotaging the team’s efforts.

But if you really want to develop teamwork – put some thought into your work in the trenches. Is your team challenged to do something that is meaningful and that stretches them? Are all team members needed to be successful? Are they clear about the goal and supported in getting there? Do you find some informal time to deepen relationships and just have fun?

If so, taking some “time out of work time” – to talk about what is working on the team, what is getting in the way, and how you might get better – is time well spent. Even 30 minutes every few weeks can contribute to building a stronger and stronger team – perhaps one that is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well maybe not that amazing – but pretty doggone good!

Gratitude or Grouchiness – What Do You Cultivate in Your Work?

Note to our long time readers: This post is a repeat – but bears repeating! We got so much positive feedback on this last Thanksgiving, we’ve dusted it off and reposted it.

My favorite holiday has arrived. Thanksgiving is not only less frantic but is focused on what really matters. Although it can be overshadowed by football and Black Friday– it is a simpler, richer, more soulful and satisfying holiday than others. And what’s not to like about pumpkin pie?

This holiday is an antidote to a more general mindset that is prevalent in our culture. One of complaining, grumbling, judging, finger pointing, and never finding happiness in spite of the abundance around us. One of being quick to pinpoint the problem and never seeing what is right with the world.

And so on one day for a few short hours (or minutes) we collectively pause and ask the question of what we are grateful for. Conscious gratitude helps us to attend to what “really matters” and also how much we have. Gratitude is an opening – a view to the abundance of the good things in our life. And it is a basic truth that what we focus on, we tend to get more of.

Long ago I began a gratitude journal – each night jotting down 10 things I was grateful for. It was a bit alarming early in the process at just how hard this was. It was much easier to name 10 things that went wrong – a litany of small hurts, injustices and petty grievances. This practice, over time, reshaped the way I navigated the day. At first, I had to pay attention in a different way so that I would have things to list in the journal. Over time, I began to see the patterns in what I was grateful for and what brought me joy. And it was a revelation – as 99% of the things that made my list were pretty simple – a chat with a co-worker, a good meal with family, a project well done, an insight, flowers blooming, sunshine, pets, being in nature, quiet times, being outside, a rich conversation, a kind word. And then the magic happened – the more I looked for things to be grateful for, there was more I had to be grateful about. The things that brought me joy were noticed, amplified, and more abundant.

This graphic with the words of David Steindl-Rast explains the spiral quite well: “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

(Thanks to the folks at, where you can learn more about gratefulness or can order merchandise with this wisdom on it)

The Business Connection to Gratitude

It’s taken me a lot longer to begin to grasp the connection between gratitude and business. As a facilitator of a 3-day change workshop in my days at RR Donnelley, we taught that gratitude was the highest state of mind and that in these higher states we are more effective as individuals, as teams and ultimately as organizations. Other higher states included curiosity, flexibility, a sense of humor, kindness, patience, and creativity. Honestly, I never quite “got it”.

It was not until I became a business owner that I really began to “get it”. When I’m grateful for my clients, I show up in a different way that facilitates the work we do together. When I am consciously grateful for the opportunity to do the work I love, for the good work of associates, for progress made – I value, nurture and care for those things. And again the magic – more of what I am grateful for – comes my way.

The converse is also true. Ingratitude diminishes and constricts. How often do I feel valued as a customer? Too often I must say I feel that I am an annoyance, an inconvenience. To get service, I must call an 800 number and endure a 45 minute queue followed by a multitude of transfers and very little chance of resolution. When was the last time I was told, sincerely, in words and meaningful actions, that I was valued as a customer?

The same goes for employees. We act as if valuing, noticing and being grateful for the efforts of employees is (you can fill in the blank):

  • too hard
  • doesn’t matter
  • too time consuming
  • irrelevant because after all, it’s their job
  • not needed; they get a paycheck don’t they?
  • an invitation to ask for a raise…..

I’ll always remember thanking a production worker for showing up on time every single day – a simple, but important thing. This big, burly man got a bit choked up and then said, “I’ve worked here for 20 years, never missed a day and have never been late for my shift, and you are the first person to notice.” How many folks like this exist in your organization?

So on this special American Holiday, let us be grateful in our hearts and minds. More importantly, let us show that gratitude in our actions. Notice what you are grateful for and then express it. Say it out loud. Write a note. Provide a small token that shows how you feel. Look customers and employees in the eye and say thanks. Simple is better – sincerity is required. Think about how to give thanks daily rather than only one day a year.

Remember that gratitude is a bridge – between what is valued and what is given (by a person, place, event or object). Connecting intentionally with what we appreciate sharpens our focus and brings more of what is valued into our lives, our relationships, and our organizations.

And so, I am truly grateful for this work I do, for the good people that do this work for me, for the clients who bring me into their organizations and for the folks that connect me with future opportunities.

Happy Turkey Day!

What Scares You This Halloween?

Chartered by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill spent 20 years interviewing and then documenting the secret to success for over 500 leaders in the 1930’s. His interview list is impressive and includes Ford, Edison, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, and Wilber Wright. The result was Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937 and still in print, one of the best selling business books of all times.

Image of Brown Lady of Raynham Hall Chapter 15 is titled: How to Outwit the Six Ghosts of Fear. Hill identifies these six basic fears as:

  • The fear of Poverty
  • The fear of Criticism
  • The fear of Ill Health
  • The fear of the Loss of Love of Someone
  • The fear of Old Age
  • The fear of Death

Individuals can carry these fears, but so can groups. Just listen to any political ad in the next week and you’ll see politicians artfully playing on our fear of poverty.

And as leader, if you are carrying one of these fears, they can be transmitted to those you lead. Fear truly is contagious, just like yawns and smiles.

I like the characterization of these fears as “ghosts” – as it describes their shadowy nature. These fears float in and around us, causing angst, worry, indecision, and sense of uncontrol.

When we pull them into the light of day, we can find a number of surprising things:

  • They actually are not nearly the threat we perceived
  • We can face them successfully
  • Some are inevitable (old age and death) and far better to reconcile ourselves and find the best way to age and die

Fear breeds indecision and inaction (think of how you often freeze when faced with danger). The antidote is a conscious decision and focused action. I find that when I am fretting about something, the mere act of facing the fear and asking myself if it is “real” takes many fears off the list. If it is “real”, then making a list of possible options, choosing one and then DOING SOMETHING dissipates the fear and worry. It also greatly diminishes the chance that the fear will be realized!

Are there other fears you might add to the list? And what do you do that is most effective to move past fear and into action?

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