How Many Exclamation Points Does It Take?

I was spending some time with a colleague in her home office. As we chatted, an email popped up on her screen with an exclamation point in the subject line. She glanced at it and then went back to talking with me.

“Aren’t you going to pay attention to that?” I asked. “It looks important. It’s got an exclamation point.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t take messages seriously until they get up around three or more exclamation points.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “It’s like a priority system. One is normal communication. Two is probably something you should respond to. Three is, ‘Hey, this is important.’ Four and five are critical. Drop what you’re doing. And six or more is usually someone just pissed off about something.”

“How did this get started?” I asked.

“You see,” she said,” we had a manager who seemed to think that everything she sent was critical because she was the boss. So, everything she sent had one or more exclamation points. But after a while we all figured that out most of what she sent out wasn’t all that critical or timely. A few people started mocking her by sending out emails with exclamation points as well. It became kind of a joke and we all adapted.”

“Is she still in charge?” I asked. “Did she ever catch on?”

“Oh, no!” my colleague said. “She’s long gone and no, she never figured it out.”

“So why still do it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because we all think it’s a bit of fun. You just have to learn that if you come to work with us, you shouldn’t take anything seriously unless it has at least three exclamation points.”

So, what are the take-ways from all this? In a way, it’s like the boy who cried “wolf” so much that nobody took him seriously when there was a wolf. Or maybe the person who yelled “fire” in a crowded theater as a joke and scared the crap out of people. Neither is a good thing to do. The same thing can happen in the workplace. Sadly, the lack of professional maturity on the part of this previous leader unknowingly incited this practice and impaired the communication of the unit until people adapted to her beliefs and practices.

At the same time, this example demonstrates people’s ability to adapt to and read others. When everything is promoted as critical, nothing will be taken as critical. But this team took a step back and adjusted to this leader’s behavior. As a result, they rebalanced communication on their own. On top of this, they also found a bit of humor and perspective in what happened.

What can you learn from this example that will help you lead your team?

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