Giving Feedback to a “Firehose” Communicator? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior executive at a fast-growing regional bank. One of our employees (I’ll call her Mae), who doesn’t report to me but on whom I rely on for several big deliverables on a regular basis, is driving me nuts. We are all very “nice” around here and no one gives anyone feedback, so I don’t know what to do about this.

All of Mae’s communications are delivered like a firehose of information: five-minute voicemails or three-page emails. She works in compliance, so most of what she is doing is CYA stuff.

It takes me way too long to hunt through her communications to figure out what I need to know and what I need to do. I am not alone. There is a joke around the branch that when you see an email from Mae, you can’t hit delete fast enough. She is oblivious. Help?

Stop the Firehose


Dear Stop the Firehose,

Look. Just because the culture of the organization is that no one gives anyone feedback doesn’t mean you can’t. This is about your quality of life of work—and Mae’s ineffective behavior. You could chicken out and talk to her boss. That’s what most people do in “nice”—a.k.a. indirect, passive-aggressive cultures. Or you could act like the senior executive you are and make a request. After all, you must rely on her for work product. You have every right to do so.

Be kind, be gentle, be clear and direct. Take Mae aside, making sure you have privacy and won’t be disturbed. Tell her you find her communications hard to follow and too time consuming to digest. Then request that any and all communications to you follow this format:

Brief Hello,

A – Action: Exact action needed. Clear, concise, with deadline.

B- Background: Purpose for action, context for request. Use bullet points, numbers, or section headings if very detailed.

C- Close: Next steps and thank you.

This ABC model comes from The Hamster Revolution by Mike Song, Tim Buress, and our own Vicki Halsey. Our company has been using this format since the book came out, and it really makes a difference. People use it mostly when they are sharing critical information that requires action from the recipient. I can tell you that it takes a great deal of time and focus to write this way, because it forces the sender, not the recipient, to do all the organizing of ideas and thinking.

It works just as well for voicemails (who is still using voicemail?) and is excellent for texts and for Slack or Teams.

Tell Mae that if she sends you a communication that doesn’t follow the ABC format, you will return it to her and ask her to format it properly if she wants you to pay attention to it. I don’t know much about banking, but I imagine that being on top of compliance probably matters.

After your meeting, send her an email with the format you want—whether it is this one or another you prefer.

If you have an HR person, ask them to announce the new communication norms for the whole office as well. This would get everyone onboard with higher professional standards.

People aren’t born knowing this stuff, so you really do need to tell her. It is the fault of her manager and anyone else who is senior to her that she is oblivious. You will be doing Mae, yourself, and everyone else a big favor when you teach her how to craft effective communications. Don’t be critical or tell her that others are making fun of her. Just make a request and make it clear it is not optional.

Step up on this one. It is the right thing to do.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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