How bad communication can divide your team

Bad communication is easier by email
Be careful when you press that “send” button!

Many of us use email a lot these days. It has always been one of the most common forms of communication anywhere that I’ve worked and as with anything, there are people that use it badly and people that use it well.

Being a written form of digital communication, you have to be really careful with it. I’ve witnessed a few situations where people have sent a controversial email only to madly try and recall it. Well, most of the time, you can’t guarantee that someone hasn’t seen that email, even if it was recalled from most people successfully.

Bad communication is easier using email. It is easy to send an email without confrontation. It’s also easy to misunderstand the meaning of an email.

People also keep emails that they receive, if there is a reason to. I keep a store of bad emails that I receive for posts just like this one. I keep nice emails because occasionally when I’m having a bad day they make me feel better. So be careful – emails can get you in hot water.

Example of real-life bad communication, by email

Here’s a real example of a bad email that I was forwarded by one of my former colleagues within the last 5 years (I kept it, see?). I have anonymised it to protect the guilty and innocent but the message remains the same. The reason I am posting parts of it here is because there is a lot to learn from such an email. It is divisive and inflammatory and terrible for team morale.

This email was sent by a team lead, to his team. Now I’m going to go through it and pick out the aspects that make it the poor communication that it is.

One of my many jobs here at <company> is to ensure we all are getting the best possible environment to grow and succeed in our roles. I am also accountable for making sure we do more of what we love doing professionally and that we are enabled through technology.

The email starts off well enough, although I would be careful about saying “one of my many jobs here” – it certainly makes the leader sound like they are one of those “I’m so busy” people. It sets the tone, ever so slightly, that if you work more (long hours) then you are better than those who don’t.

All my actions are on the premise of providing means to further engage ourselves in all things <profession-related>, push boundaries of convention and explore new horizons; in short be great at what we do and also be great to each other.

This is simply grandstanding. If *all your actions* are for your team, then you are lying. Some things are done for yourself. This email is certainly pushing the boundaries of convention…and as it progresses, you will see that it isn’t an example of being great to each other.

All this only becomes relevant  if we are committed to the <team>. If we take ownership of the work and make every possible effort to get things over the line.

As a leader, I will *never* suggest to my team that they should be more committed to it. Why? Because I have to do something to make them feel as if they should be more committed – I can’t force anybody to become more committed to something they don’t believe in.

If people don’t feel committed to your team, then either they simply aren’t a good fit, they have different goals or aspirations than the team, or it is your fault for causing them to be disengaged, as a leader.

While I’m extremely pleased to say that <the leader’s own office> lives and breathes the goal of “Going above and Beyond”,  I’m not feeling the love from <other offices>.

This statement is extremely divisive and is very likely to break the team into multiple parts (if it isn’t already). It also speaks to favouritism for the leader’s own office and leaves the entire team guessing as to which are the most troublesome offices. This statement breeds gossip, is not specific and has the dual effect of making the home office team members feel superior to the others and vice versa.

Any statements like these shouldn’t be made to a group, because there is no benefit from anonymously naming and shaming certain parts of the audience – some of which may not even know they’re in the crosshairs.

As for the goal of “Going above and Beyond” – be very careful with this type of statement. Just because I may want to sink 60 hours a week into a company as the leader, does not mean that I should expect my team to do so. If I can’t accomplish my team goals within reasonable working hours, then I need to hire more people or simply take longer to do the work. “Going above and beyond” is not something to strive for. It is ambiguous, subjective and hard to quantify. What I think is above and beyond may not be from another perspective. It’s my responsibility as a leader to try to motivate my team to perform at their best. Emails like this do not help.

In recent months, I’ve been pulled into conversations where I was told that <some of the team> aren’t owning their work and certainly not seeing things through to the best of their abilities. Not a fun conversation to be had, trust me.

It sounds like the leader doesn’t have the capacity to keep in close enough contact with his team. If he is being dragged into conversations without prior knowledge, then he should be paying close attention to what his team members are doing and asking for feedback from those working with them. When I read statements like “not a fun conversation to be had”, I immediately think “You’re the leader – take responsibility”. It’s not the team’s responsibility to make sure the leader is untroubled. It is the responsibility of the leader to take accountability and not to send reactionary email communications that damage team morale.

This is a huge letdown for all of us. Hence,  this is request to go back and read the job descriptions I sent couple of months ago and try and re calibrate the expectations <the company> has on a professional level.

This statement implies there is a team spirit here, because it’s a letdown for all of the team. However, it is really a letdown for the leader and this email is the evidence. In this statement, the leader is also using the expectations of the “company” to try to induce some sort of regret and work ethic in the team. This distances the leader from accountability. “It’s not me, it’s the company who expects this”.

There are four takeaways I have from this emailed example of bad communication.

Bad communication means sending emails that target specific people, within a whole group of readers

Better yet, don’t send emails at all – have conversations in person with those that you aren’t happy with.

Bad communication means sending messages with no action or clear purpose.

If your team is not performing, then it is your responsibility and effort should be made to improve the situation. The email above is not specific. It has no actual purpose other than to attempt to make the team members remorseful.

Bad communication means failing to speak to individual team members in person to address performance problems.

Don’t “name and shame” or point anonymous fingers, call it out directly to the people involved.

Bad communication means failing to keep in close contact with your team, even if you’re in a different place.

You might not see, or even communicate with your team daily. However, there are other people who do and you should ask these people for feedback on the performance of your team. You should also tell your team members that you are going to be asking for this feedback periodically from people they work with. This prevents any nasty shocks as a leader, because if there is a performance problem, you have hopefully heard about it beforehand by gathering feedback proactively.

This is not a good example of communication, people. Email is to be used with caution. Be careful out there!

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