Avoid setting up an email for failure

I got an email last night, which started like this.

Dear all,
Firstly, let me apologise for this note, which is rather long and technical. You might want to fortify yourself with tea and biscuits before reading…

The email that followed was indeed long and technical. But it was also really useful and entirely appropriate. It was timely, in that it related to an issue discussed in a meeting earlier that day, it had exactly the right information, it was exactly the length it needed to be and was written in a tone that was friendly and informative. It was a great email.


By STARTING with an apology, and by pointing out some things that weren’t great about it, the author was “priming” his readers towards thinking the email would be boring/tedious/complicated/difficult.

He was setting their subconscious elephants off down a track that made it more likely they would hate the email. And thus not pay attention to its contents.

I get it. You don’t want to inflict stuff on your colleagues that they’re not really interested in and you want them to know that you know they’re not really interested in it. So you apologise before you’ve started.

In many ways this is just dialling up the humility a bit, which can be a useful thing to do sometimes. But not at the start of an email. Don’t do it.

All it does is weaken the power of your message and make it more likely that people will ignore what you’re saying.

You don’t have to go overboard. Don’t try to oversell the thing.

Just keep it factual and informative.

Dear all,
Following on from our discussion this afternoon, I wanted to share the key points of the policy we were talking about and direct you to relevant resources…

“Key points” says “short and to the point, it won’t take you long to read this.”

“Direct you to relevant resources” says “I want to help, you can find what you need by reading this email.”

These things prime the reader in the other direction. It steers the subconscious elephant to a path that says “This email will be useful to me. I should pay attention.”

First impressions count. In emails as well as in person. Don’t put yourself on the back foot before you’ve started.

Grab a copy of my FREE eBook – 6 Keys to Leadership to find out more about Confidence vs Humility and getting the balance right between them.

Kids these days

A friend of mine is a teacher in America. She’s been teaching a long time. As she was thinking about the start of the new year she posted this…

The climate of education has changed a lot since I started teaching sixteen years ago, but do you know what hasn’t changed? Kids. Despite what some will tell you, “kids these days”, at their core, are the same as they have always been: they are funny, they are figuring things out, they want to please, and they desperately want to know that someone sees them.

I’ll say a bit of that again.

They are figuring things out, they want to please, and they desperately want to know that someone sees them.

I strikes me that this applies to just about everyone I know.

Sure. You could probably name a couple of people who don’t “want to please” anyone at all and maybe even revel in being awkward. But I’d bet that they are figuring things out (really) and are desperate to know that someone sees them.

Most people get a lift when they feel noticed for doing things well.

Keep an eye on your colleagues. Catch them doing something right. Thank them for it.

Task, team, individuals

John Adair. A proper academic thinker and leader on leadership. He proposed a model usually called “action centred leadership” that starts with three things that leaders have to pay attention to.


Following on from my post about People vs Process it is all too easy to focus energy and attention on “achieving the task” and neglect “building the team” and “growing the individuals”.

“Get it done, get it done, you’re really close to the deadline, are you going to make it, we have to meet the target, have you started that other thing yet…” Achieve the task. Achieve the task. Achieve the task.

Build the team….

“Let’s get together for ten minutes and talk about how things are going. I don’t want to discuss the timeline or workflow or deadlines or the project itself. I just want to talk about how we’re working. Are we communicating well enough? Is everyone clear what they’re doing and where we’re up to? Are we getting all the points of view on the table?”

Grow the individuals…

“How are you doing? You look a little stressed. What’s happening? Have you got what you need to get done what you’ve been tasked with? Do you just need a break? How would you like to lead the stakeholder meeting on Thursday? I think you’re ready… I can get someone else to handle that task you’re on now so you can prepare…”

As ever on this blog about leading from wherever you are, this all applies wherever you are in the team.

If you’re not in charge… challenge and encourage everyone (including your boss) to be working in all three circles. Suggest ways for the team to work better. Reach out to individuals and lift them up.

If you’re in charge… challenge and encourage everyone (including yourself) to be working in all three circles!

People vs Process

How do you see your organisation?

Is it a group of people trying to achieve a common aim?

Or a set of processes, policies and structures designed to facilitate smooth working and success?

Obviously it’s both. But where do you put your energy? Your thinking? Your leadership?

Better processes? Or more fulfilled people?

Again… I would hope it’s both. And often the intent is: “better processes will create space and time for the people and lead to more fulfilment”. Which can work. 

But be careful. If you’re always talking about the processes, if you always tackle difficulties and change and opportunities from the process side, the people will notice. Without thinking about it. And they’ll subconsciously draw the obvious conclusion.

That you care more about the processes than you do about them. 

The elephant and the rider

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We sift the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and take decisions based on clear understanding of the facts.

Except we don’t.

In his book the Righteous Mind, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt explains that our thought process works like a rider sitting on an elephant. The rider is the rational, thoughtful mind. The elephant is the instinctive, immediately-reactive subconscious.

When faced with a new situation, or a decision to make, in the blink of an eye the elephant decides whether to turn left or right. Then the rational rider looks for information that supports the elephant’s choice. And rejects anything that implies the elephant was wrong.

The rider can’t change the elephant’s direction. Once the elephant has turned, the path is set in stone for a while.


This has huge implications for communication, change and how we influence one another.

If you want to set or shift someone’s mindset about something, you have to speak to the elephant first. Set up a situation that will provoke an emotional response in the direction you want.

If someone’s elephant has turned left, it won’t matter how cleverly you craft your memo to the rider explaining that they should have gone the other way. It’s already too late.

Thanks to Kristin Noelle from www.sacred-loom.com for letting me use her wonderful image.

What do YOU think?

Or maybe that should be “What do you THINK?”

Often in a discussion there are various sides to take into account. If we look at things from one perspective a particular course of action seems obvious. But when we move our viewpoint, other options come into play and appear equally as valid. In such circumstances it can be difficult to know what to do.

If you are “leading from above” you’re ¬†expected to listen to all the options, the pros and cons of each, and arrive at a decision about the way forward.

If you’re not the “leader from above” head honcho, you still have an opportunity to lead from below or within. But only if you’re willing to come to your own view about what you think should be done. And say it out loud.

It’s all very well to understand the context, the various options and the pros and cons of each. It is absolutely necessary to be sure that the discussion group has all of that in front of them. But the only way you “steer” a discussion is by coming to your own conclusion and being willing to state it publicly.

This can be hard. Especially if you think your final view doesn’t match where you think “the leader” will end up, or goes against what other powerful figures in the discussion think. But those are often the moments when it is most important that you state your opinion.

Now. I’m not advocating career suicide. If you know that Mrs X will make sure you get sacked if you go against her in public… Well… You have to pick your battles and choose how to fight them.

But if your unique perspective on a problem, which comes from your unique experience, knowledge and understanding of the context, is at odds with others in the room, there’s every chance they’re missing something important.

It might be that stating your opinion doesn’t change the end result. The boss might still choose to place more weight on a different view. You have to accept that this might happen.

But the capacity to weigh the pros and cons of various options and come up with a clear view on what to do is a crucial leadership skill.

The very best teams are able to engage with the different options in a complex situation, have members of the group speak clearly on different sides of the argument and then proceed with the final decision as a unified group.

So if you want to be in a powerful team, if you want to steer that team as it moves forwards, practise deciding what you would do if you were in charge and saying it out loud in a way that contributes positively to the decision-making process.

You’ll be exercising your leadership muscles. And people will notice.