Guidelines for healthy communications

How healthy is your company’s communication? For example, as a leader team, do you set the example for appropriate use of email, healthy debate on tough issues and worthwhile meetings?
I was recently working with a group of leaders who admitted their trust level was in the tank. To their credit, they agreed as a group to apply some process improvement to themselves, instead of just to the production floor. As they began to do a “team autopsy” on how they ended up in this situation, it became clear it had been a long, slow process of decline. Now they avoided each other, “outed” each other in meetings, and complained about one another behind closed doors.
There were some logical reasons for the lack of trust—an autocratic leader who pitted them against one another for years, for example. Now that the leader was gone, and replaced with someone who understands how to build a collaborative team, they were tentative, but willing to explore some of the behavior that was still getting in the way.
Here are some of the unhealthy habits they identified. I have seen varying degrees of these trust crushers in other organizations. How about yours? 
  • Do you participate in lengthy email “chains?” 
It’s easy to fall into this trap, particularly if you aren’t in the same geographic location. Some of these back-and-forth email exchanges can go on for pages. Frequently, these “conversations” get more contentious and defensive the longer they go. Sometimes when I’m asked to step into a conflict situation, I’m forwarded a chain of emails, so I can get some background. As I read upward, I usually think why didn’t someone pick up the phone? 

(Guiding principle: After the third email in the chain, pick up the phone, or walk down the hall.)
  •  Do you often get CC’d or BCC’d?
If you are frequently “carbon copied” is it because you legitimately need to know, or is it because someone is using you as the accountability “hammer?” And if you are getting a “blind carbon copy,” why aren’t they willing to communicate openly? Is it a sneaky way for you to spy on a situation, without the person’s knowledge? Is it a way to tattle on someone without looking like a jerk? What are you doing to encourage this?
(Guiding principle: Ask your worst offenders to leave your name off and deal with the person more directly.)
  • Do people talk about each other instead of to each other? 
Redirect them to talk to the person directly. It sounds so simple but often leaders feel they have to listen and then take steps to fix it, but that usually just exacerbates the situation. Instead of making the person take ownership and resolve his or her own conflicts, the leader ends up in the middle. 

(Guiding principles: Listen first; help them with talking points, send them back to the person they should be talking to; and ask the person to report back on how it went (to force accountability for resolving the problem). If that doesn’t work, get involved more directly.
  • Does your team have “meetings after the meetings?” 
Do people wander into your office to lobby their position before—or even after-- a decision has been made? Do you let them influence you, so that you change the decision? Leaders who allow this tactic are going to create ineffective team meetings and drawn out political maneuvering. It will also force you to be the main decision maker and will be a colossal waist of your time.

(Guiding principle: Start using a meeting ground rule, “Disagree in private and stand united once a decision has been made.” If someone comes to you later, ask them to bring it up with the group and factor it into the final outcome.)
  • Does your team point the finger at each other when things go south?
There’s a good chance two things are at work here: the team’s goals and metrics aren’t aligned, and/or you are punishing mistakes. 

(Guiding principle: Have a group session to create team goals that force collaboration and joint ownership. Stay calm and in “coaching mode” when mistakes are made. Assume best intentions and advise everyone else to do the same.)

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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