x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The prisoners of email

The Life: Success is not a zero-sum game, it is an unlimited-sum game.

If the Jamaican relay team were like some workplaces, the person handing over the baton would be so obsessed with not being blamed for a poor handover that the team would suffer; and e-mail would be the measure of that decay, as Tommy Weir explains below. Carl Court / AFP
If the Jamaican relay team were like some workplaces, the person handing over the baton would be so obsessed with not being blamed for a poor handover that the team would suffer; and e-mail would be the measure of that decay, as Tommy Weir explains below. Carl Court / AFP

I walked out of a top management team meeting last week wondering, "If each of you are on the same team, then shouldn't you be focused on helping each other succeed?"

Of course, the implied, and somewhat rhetorical, answer is yes. But if this is so obvious, why do leaders often practise to the contrary?

My wonder was ignited while listening to the chief executive of a regional mega-company ask his leaders, "Why do you send me an FYI message after an email interchange with one of your peers and without copying them?"

He went on to speculate, in front of them, "Is it that you do this to show me that you have done your part and now passed the responsibility on?"

He went on to talk about the taboo subject of sending BCC messages to oneself in order archive them and have protection at a later date if ever called on to use the defence, "I did my part."

He revealed how their actions showed they were more interested in creating cover for themselves than creating shared success.

This would not be so alarming if it was happening in a high school project team. But when leaders of billion-dirham businesses are doing the same thing, it becomes very worrying.

If a leader has the awareness to archive a message for future protection, they should also be aware enough to copy the message to their task or to-do list and set a reminder to follow up with their colleague to make sure everything is going well.

The difference between these approaches is having a mindset of self-protection versus shared success.

When a team runs a relay race and the baton is passed from one runner to the next, both runners own the responsibility of the smooth pass - the one passing it and the one receiving.

This example highlights helping each other in order to achieve shared success.

When a leader joins a top management team, the focus has to shift to collective and shared success.

This shift requires becoming proactive in helping others succeed.

Just as players perform on the pitch, leaders in the boardroom need to be thinking, "How are we going to win and how can I help my peers perform at their best and shine in the spotlight for others to see?"

Success is not a zero-sum game, it is an unlimited-sum game.

In Prisoner's Dilemma, a game theory exercise, the participants try to predict what the other prisoner will do and then they use this prediction to decide how to act and behave.

The two prisoners, who are held as joint suspects in a burglary, are each offered the same deal but separately. In this exercise, shared success is possible but most participants try to win at the expense of the other player and in return both end up losing.

In corporate life, we need to practise this insight and focus on shared success because anything less causes all to lose.

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center