When I was the CEO at Thomas Nelson, one of our authors was frustrated. In response to a disappointing sales report, he fired off a blistering email to one of our divisional leaders.
He complained about poor results. He criticized the sales strategy and our failure to execute. Worse, he challenged the leader’s intelligence, competence, and work ethic. This thing was so hot, it nearly melted the servers.
On its own, the email would have been bad enough. But to add insult to injury, he “replied all” when he intended to reply solely to that divisional leader.
Now, we can stress the need to be more careful and ensure we’re sending our messages to only those we intend. And, yes, that’s a start. But I suggest we go further.
We’ve all worked with people that weaponize email and blast anyone who crosses them. But even level-headed leaders can self-sabotage with email if they’re not careful.
Email was designed for ease of communication. But there are some things it was not designed for. Some situations need to be treated with phone calls or in-person communication, especially if they include difficult information or require more context.
From where I sit, there are at least three situations where leaders should almost never send an email:
- To criticize. If your goal is to remediate poor performance or bad behavior, email is more likely to fail than succeed. Why? Because it’s easily misunderstood, it’s one-dimensional, and it can even be dehumanizing.
Sometimes people need correction. It’s just that email is a poor tool to produce the change we desire. Instead of improving the situation, we just might make it worse.
To complain. There’s nothing wrong with complaining. Some situations are unacceptable, and it falls to us as leaders to point them out. Just not in email. The problems here are similar to those of the first situation.
In both cases we might feel the need to document the error. That could be for HR or even legal purpose. But unless the case is hopeless or extreme, leaders should call first and follow up with an email to document later.
To deliver bad news. Once I worked for a company that decided to lay off several remote salespeople. Instead of their manager calling with the bad news, he made the announcement in a letter. Can you believe it? We sometimes do that kind of thing in email too.
Email seemingly allows leaders to avoid awkward conversations or difficult confrontations. But it’s often an example of abdicating leadership.
Email is excellent when it comes to informing, explaining, or even praising. But if it’s not one of those, we should meet face-to-face if possible.
If a face-to-face is impossible, then we should set up a video conference or make a phone call. As an option, email should be dead last.