Gini Dietrich

The Three Email Bombs Sending Your Team into a Tailspin

By: Gini Dietrich | February 1, 2017 | 

The Three Email Bombs Sending Your Team into a TailspinEarlier this week, I recorded a podcast with Matt Inglot for Freelance Transformation.

Which, by-the-way, just celebrated 100 episodes and he had cake to celebrate and did not offer me any.

We really need to work on that technology that delivers food and drink through a desktop.

Would you like a slice of my yummy 100 episodes celebration cake?

Why yes, I would! Thank you!

Transfer complete.

The recording won’t air for another six to eight weeks, but I’m going to give you a preview because it pertains to today’s topic: Email bombs.

During our conversation, Matt asked me some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in building a business.

I said I used to be a terrible leader.

I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E.

When you model your behavior after former bosses, that’s not always good.

But it was all I knew.

Email Bombs in the Middle of the Night are Bad

In 2007, I was in San Diego visiting a client.

At dinner, he and I discussed how my team was doing—what he appreciated and where he saw weaknesses.

They were our largest client—by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course I listened to what he had to say.

Now that I have time on my side, I realize it was all dumb, nit-picky things, but he really wanted me to promise I’d be his day-to-day contact from that moment forward.

I went back to my hotel room and fired off an email.

It was not a nice email…and it landed in my team’s inboxes around 2 a.m. their time.

The first thing they saw when they got to the office the next day was my middle-of-the-night rant.

When I returned to Chicago, our managing director came into my office, closed the door, and read me the riot act.

“How dare she?” I thought. “You’re the ones screwing up. Not me!”

But she was right.

The very last place to have a conversation about client challenges was in an email after midnight.

Email Bombs are Generally Bad

I hired a leadership coach right after that and he helped me work through those—and other—issues.

It was hard to rebound from that major mistake. It hurt our culture and it hurt morale.

But I worked really hard on it and promised never again to send email bombs.

In fact, I don’t use the written word for any conversation—conflict, constructive criticism, or positive feedback. It’s used only for information sharing.

It turns out, I’m not the only one who had to learn the email bombs lesson.

Email is one of the biggest causes of stress in the workplace.

And, many times, it’s entirely the fault of the leader.

Those middle-of-the-night emails you’re sending to the team to course-correct?

They’re actually email bombs that are causing chaos in your organization.

Not good. At all.

Don’t Use Email for Bad News

Just as email doesn’t have a font to denote sarcasm, it doesn’t have one to denote empathy or any of the other myriad nuances you need to convey to another person when delivering bad news.

Do not use email to fire someone, discuss an impending reorganization, decline a proposal for a raise or a promotion, or to deprive the sender of a conversation.

Those tough conversations have to, have to, have to be in person—or, like in our case, on video chat.

Sending an email sends a message that you don’t value the person enough to take the time to talk with them about it.

It also leads to many more problems that likely didn’t exist before the email was sent.

Taking the easy way out of an uncomfortable situation in this way is poor leadership.

Don’t Use Email to Provide Critical Feedback

My story above is a classic case of what not to do unless you’re trying to give everyone on your team a sleepless night and an ulcer from stress.

They also tend to overanalyze and become very defensive, which leads to an unproductive day or days.

Critical feedback needs to be given in person, with the recipient being allowed to ask questions about and provide context to the comments.

Don’t Use Email to Change Direction on an Agreed-upon Plan

We’re all busy, and only have so many minutes in the day to get everything we need to do checked off our list.

This makes it really tempting to send a quick email when there’s a change of plans giving the recipient a heads up on the change that’s needed and asking them to put it in motion.

But here’s the problem: When you are on the receiving end of that email, you have questions.

And when it takes hours, via email, to get replies to those questions, while under the ticking clock of the original plan’s timeline, it’s anxiety-inducing.

Changes in agreed-upon plans require a conversation.

There’s no way around it.

It’s not realistic to expect your team members to be mind readers or automatons and change course based on an email you dashed off in the moment.

If you’re tempted to send any of the above email bombs, step away from the computer and have a face-to-face conversation.

It’s the only way to keep your organization’s morale intact.

Email can be an effective tool for giving your team updates or to request things from them.

It’s never the right choice for having difficult conversations or to make decisions, so stop sending those email bombs to your teams.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • turnerchris

    Hi Gini. I agree with almost everything you’ve said here but I do think email has a role to play when a project changes direction. Sending an email means everyone on the project gets the same information at the same time and there’s a written record of when and how the project was changed. In my experience, this helps clarify the new direction effectively. People do, indeed, have questions and its good to make sure they’re answered in whatever way the questioner chooses.

    • That’s fair. I see your point and agree. I think where it gets sticky is when your team has questions and you answer them via email versus just having a quick conversation. I have a friend who, just last week, received a project change email from her boss and then, when she had questions, he responded with, “Getting on a plane. Can’t help now.” She’s super frustrated.

      • That’s such a lack of respect towards the professional that works for you.
        That’s the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager is always busy and follows his to-do list, while a leader helps his people succeed in their jobs.

  • HH

    Thank you for sharing Gini. An email bomb can certainly do a huge amount of damage!

  • Pete Salmon

    I think late night email bombs can be the result of that lonely feeling at the top. Entrepreneurs have so few people to turn to from 9 to 5 that truly understand their situations, let alone the middle of the night when their minds are reeling and they want the slightest relief that an email affords. So, I understand the phenomenon.

    I have burn marks, but never, ever from you. Thank you!

    • No, I just send you after-hours Slack messages to tease you.

  • heidicohen

    The real problem with email is that our thoughts go straight from our brains to our fingertips. NOTE: The same is true with social media.

    BUT–your email expressing your thoughts takes on a life of its own. It remains in the computer netherworld. It can be passed around and leaked to people and media you don’t want to see it.

    Instead, go to your computer (or old fashioned piece of paper) and write down your thoughts. Let them sit. Then decide is you want to communicate them.

    Happy marketing,

    Heidi Cohen
    Actionable Marketing Guide

    • Yes, you’re right, Heidi. The internet has definitely made us think less about consequences when we sit behind our computer screens. I know people write things they would NEVER say in person. It’s not good.

      • Totally agree. Internet empowerment is a very scary thing.

  • Julia Carcamo

    I was copied on an email of of my marketing directors sent to his team at around four in the morning. Nuclear! It was so bad that we actually had to consider passing it on to HR because of the way he talked to them and threatened them. I’m still shaking my head at the thought of it.

    • Well now I want to know what it said! LOL! Is this person like that or was it just in the heat of the moment?

      • Julia Carcamo

        Well….he was under a great deal of pressure and had hired absolutely the wrong people (which BTW we advised against). He was very demanding naturally. He had actually sent quite a few scathing emails to me. So, it was just a disaster waiting to happen.

        • Sigh. People.

        • That’s another way to avoid taking responsibility for your decisions. Finding someone else to blame is always the easiest way out.

        • paulakiger

          Scathing emails are no fun.