I'm leading the Agile team with a flat structure and we recently got a new team member. He is 10 years older than me and more experienced in some things (emotional intelligence) and he is local in a country where I work, I'm expatriate here. No matter what, I'm leader of the team and have responsibility.

After several weeks, after he joined, we had escalation about team readiness to deliver one small project where almost every team member was involved. He didn't work on that project but during his interview with my manager, before he was hired, it was agreed that he will take ownership of similar projects.

As we had a couple of days left before the small project has to be delivered, I sent email to our developers and asked about individual status apart from that I wrote the following to our new employee in that email:

John, according to my conversation with Chris, he asked you to take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name] and we need your help in this space to double-confirm that everything is ready. You can work on organizational details with our [scrum master name] and business [stakeholder name] and double-check individual development status with [individual developers names]

I sent this a couple of hours before the working day started, and when I reached the office he asked for a chat with me and told me that I should not give public orders but had to have an individual discussion with him to agree on this work. I told him that I didn't mean that and apologized and explained my intentions with pressure coming from the above.

After that, I read my email again but still cannot get to the point if it was really that wrong. Of course, I will try to be sensitive to this going further but can anyone explain to me what I did wrong here?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 2 '18 at 7:02

13 Answers 13


I disagree with parts of the other anwers.

Your message is unclear.

Things like we need your help in this space to double-confirm that everything is ready are very vague. What are you asking/saying? Your colleague is now left to guess what you mean and will respond following his own interpretation of your text (that's what human beings do).

You should be more clear in your communication. Be specific in your requests.

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    I agree it could be a bit more clear, but that doesn't explain the reaction of John. – Mixxiphoid Nov 30 '18 at 9:26
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    @Mixxiphoid People react how they react. You can only change how you yourself behave. – user8036 Nov 30 '18 at 9:29
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    @Mixxiphoid when requests are unclear, you roll a dice with how people will react because it can be interpreted in multiple ways. – UKMonkey Nov 30 '18 at 10:46
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    What are you asking/saying? - That per Chris, we need your help to confirm that everything related to this project's delivery is finished. It even explains how...by getting the details of the project from the scrum master, the business stakeholder, and comparing notes with the developers who were involved in the project. I feel like it's very clear and even if I had specific questions, I'd know who to talk to about it (scrum master, business stakeholder or developers). Can you be more specific about what's missing or unclear? – Rob P. Nov 30 '18 at 14:58
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    @Fattie: maybe so, but the questioner thinks it was not an order "I told him that I didn't mean that and apologized". If it was intended to be an order, then the criticism of the way the email is written is somewhat different from the criticism since it wasn't. Sure, if the organisation is accustomed to giving orders in public then John either should STFU and do it, or tell the questioner (publicly?) that they've issued an impossible order and can FRO. But most people, including John and I think the questioner, want for whatever reason for this all to be a bit more discreet. – Steve Jessop Dec 1 '18 at 19:43

I can partially agree with most of the given answers. I do find the message unclear, but I don't think that that's the main issue here. Even if you had been clear on the tasks, it's the phrasing that is raising my eyebrow the most.

What I immediately noticed is that you never asked anything, you only stated things.

If I were to tersely rephrase your message:

  • You were asked to organize project delivery.
  • You need to double-confirm that everything is ready.
  • You can involve [people] when you need to.

"We need you to" is about the politest thing in your message, but it can very easily be interpreted as "you need to" (which is why I did so in my terse summary).

Oversimplifying your message even further, the core message here is:

John, do the work you were asked to. Ask for help if you need it.

At a glance, your message is a message sent by a boss to their subordinate. It is stating the fact of needing to do work, and not even bothering to ask if they have time to do this or if it can be done.

Politeness generally revolves around asking instead of stating, simply to avoid coming across as commanding something. Ask John is he can help, and if he can do this soon. A simple example:

John, are you the one who's working on the [project] delivery? I'm trying to double-confirm that everything is ready, can you tell me if this is the case? If not, do you have an idea when we can be ready? If you need more information or are otherwise blocked, you can talk to [scrum master name], [stakeholder name] or [individual developers names].

My version may not be fully applicable to your case (I don't know your exact environment), but it should be clear that this is more polite than dryly stating that John needs to do the work he was assigned.

Cultural differences apply here. It may be acceptable or even common in some cultures to phrase things the way you did. I'm looking at this from a Western European point of view, where polite communication is a general expectation between coworkers no matter their relative place on the chain of command.

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    +1 You can work on X from a boss/leader/superior/etc pretty much constitutes an order. A passive-aggressive one, for the worse. The difference between agile leader and a direct boss is not very clear and is open to interpretation. Many people don't even bother to try to understand that difference: whoever assigns tasks is the boss, end of story. – Agent_L Nov 30 '18 at 15:34
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    To be honest the quoted alternate version here sounds really snarky and aggressive! The original in question is just straightforward. – Fattie Nov 30 '18 at 16:34
  • Isn't it, especially in agile/modern teams, often a good idea to accept someone who is in practice a leader to sometimes act like a formal leader if it is productive? – rackandboneman Dec 1 '18 at 21:15
  • "Ask John is he can help" -> "Ask John if he can help" – Pedro A Dec 3 '18 at 10:33

Look at this from his point of view. He's a new member of a team. A few days before a project that he didn't work on is scheduled to be delivered, you send a message that this project's readiness is now his responsibility. And you send it publicly, without giving him any warning. What makes it worse is that the comment about "pressure coming from the above" sounds like this project is in trouble.

Of course he is angry. Basically you threw him under the bus: "hey new guy, here's an almost completed project that you didn't work on and don't know anything about, you are responsible for its success".

I noticed that in you post you say

it was agreed that he will take ownership of similar projects

but then in your message that gets changed to

John, according to my conversation with Chris, he asked you to take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name]

So you are making it sound like you are just confirming something that he already agreed to do, when in fact he did nothing of kind.

The combination of giving him responsibility for something at the last minute, and making it sound like this is something he already agreed to, is of course going to make him angry. Probably the smoothest way to recover is another email clarifying that you are still responsible for the project readiness, but you want him to help you out, gather information, etc, as a way of getting up to speed on project development.

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    I think this is the main reason for John's reaction. If this was the situation, John would probably have appreciated a short one on one conversation asking him if the could help out with the delivery of this project since it is planned that he would work on similar projects in the future. – Sumyrda - remember Monica Dec 2 '18 at 9:06

I 100% agree on the individual discussion first.

John, according to my conversation with Chris, he asked you to take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name] and we need your help in this space to double-confirm that everything is ready.

This sentence can be interpreted as implying that John was asked to do something and didn't do it. It is borderline passive-aggressive. Its (possible) implication of a failure on John's part is exacerbated by your having copied other people in to the message.

I really recommend providing criticism in person. In this case, the impersonal nature of email makes your message seem harsher than it was intended to.

I think he actually reacted really well and provided good feedback in an appropriate forum. I could definitely envision a scenario where he replied back in a similar manner to your email and made a lot more people unhappy (by blaming others publicly).

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    "according to my conversation with ___" and "he asked you to ____" are right up there with "per my previous e-mail..." – user3067860 Nov 30 '18 at 17:00

To me the text passage you copied is ok.

It wouldn't be ok if you wrote only that and send it to the new colleague putting everybody else in cc. But if it's an email on the general project organisation and includes other information directed at everybody it's ok.

I think the issue here was, however, that he was new and may not even know the people you listed in the email. He might not understand the project either. New people need a bit of coaching.

On the other hand, his reaction was much, much more off than your email. He should have asked you to discuss the project with you instead of criticising you for what you wrote. In a stressful environment close to delivery dates, it's difficult to expect people to analyse every sentence they utter twice. Not to mention that as his superior you have a bit more leeway to decide on the way you communicate.

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I sent this a couple of hours before the working day started, and when I reached the office he asked for a chat with me and told me that I should not give public orders but had to have an individual discussion with him to agree on this work.

Maybe I am misunderstanding your question but prior to the above quote, you said:

As we had a couple of days left before the small project has to be delivered, I sent email to our developers and asked about individual status apart from that I wrote the following to our new employee in that email:

It sounds like John is complaining that you sent an order to him PUBLICLY as in everyone in the TO, CC, and BCC lines now know that he's to take over the project. What John is trying to tell you is that by doing this, it will confuse the heck out of everyone since it will be assumed he's taken over the project but he might not be ready for it (prior project obligations, etc).

So John is correct that you should have talked to him first. However you being the boss, you can tell John too bad, because he was hired for that role and now he's to do that. But don't expect John to hang around for a long time after that.

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  • This is one of the better answers here. "Public orders" in the question text is likely a key to understand John's reaction. – Per Lundberg Nov 30 '18 at 19:33
  • "John" would be super sensitive about his position and role as he's new. That should have been handled and clarified privately. The relative age and "rank" differences have the potential for real conflict here and a mutual understanding is essential. – StephenG Dec 1 '18 at 12:40
  • Maybe John being older is unafraid to voice concerns or errors about processes. I notice that about more older individuals. – Dan Dec 3 '18 at 17:40

How this should have gone

Ideally it would have started with an individual email to John (and granted, I'd question whether this wording was entirely appropriate even then, but at least then you and John would have had room to privately go back and forth over it in a more relaxed way, as John wouldn't feel like he got torpedoed in front of the entire group):

John, according to my conversation with Chris, he asked you to take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name] and we need your help in this space to double-confirm that everything is ready. You can work on organizational details with our [scrum muster name] and business [stakeholder name] and double-check individual development status with [individual developers names]

After a response from John, the inclusion in the group email:

John will be organizing project delivery for [small project name].

At most you might have additionally said something like:

Since he's being brought in cold for that given he hasn't been on that project prior to now, please prioritize any requests from him.

Or something similar, which puts it on the group to act accordingly to expectations and to the situation with bringing John in like this, rather than on John individually, and doesn't speak negatively about John in doing so (avoids implying he's "not up to speed" or something similar by not using related language). Personally I wouldn't even go this far, and would instead individually contact related members regarding how you're dropping John in on this cold at the last minute, and expectations in helping him navigate that if he needs it, rather than dropping it in a group wide email.

The upfront issues I'm seeing here with how this was originally done

Rather than acting as a flat structure leader/coordinator, you very easily came across as if you were not only acting as John's manager, but very easily could have also come across as effectively passive aggressively chiding him for not doing his job, per "according to my conversation with Chris, he asked you to take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name] and we need your help in this space". In a public space email before the entire group.

There are degrees to which, even in a flat structure, the leader has to give what amount to being hard direction, which can easily be called commands. I'm not going to debate the pros and cons of flat structures. Personally I don't mind a teammate at the same level saying what they need from me in order to finish a project, but I feel like it does easily set things up for miscommunication, versus being able to route things through a clear superior.

Also, honestly, I'm confused. In your redacted email, you're claiming he was asked to take ownership in organizing project delivery of this specific project. In your question's text, you simply say that during his hiring process it was explained that he would be involved in project delivery of similar "small projects", not this project specifically:

but during his interview with my manager, before he was hired, it was agreed that he will take ownership of similar projects

If John wasn't already aware of this project (and per your own question, he certainly hadn't previously been involved in it) and aware of his expected involvement in it like this, then this really does come across as at best just dropping it in his lap as if he was expected to already be on top of everything… in front of the entire group. I'm not going to say it's highly inappropriate, but it is very easy to see how someone might be caught off guard and then take it very poorly, and I can't really fault such a reaction.

At worst, this does come across as calling him to the mat for not doing what Chris asked, which would be highly inappropriate in a group email.

Particularly given that you just pulled someone in with "a couple days left" on delivery and asked them to organize project delivery. Depending on what's involved with delivery of this project, this could easily feel like getting blind sided in a very negative way, and it would be easy to question what the intent was behind how you approached doing it like this, in such a tight situation.

Avoiding this in the future

Don't use group emails for asking people to take on roles on specific projects, even if you think they've already been asked/tasked to generally take on that role for projects fitting in that space. Discuss it individually, discuss the specifics individually that pertain to that individual, then explain to the group that the person in question is taking on that role for the project. Don't tell someone what to do in a group email, explain what will be happening in the group email where it pertains to the group. This distinction may seem subtle but it's still actually significant in how it informs what you say, how you word it, and what you omit. At that point, even in terms of coordination, all anyone needed to know is that John is organizing project delivery.

To another extent, you also are kind of implying that John doesn't know how to do something that you've just gotten done saying is considered to be part of his job, with the last sentence. Always assume competence of others publicly, especially when sending an email to a group: it's not the right place to effectively explain how to do something to an individual. I realize you probably meant it as some kind of an introduction to the people involved, but presumably John has been working with these people for a few weeks now, albeit not on the given project, and has had enough onboarding to be able to look up the project details and figure out who he needs to talk to himself. Failing that, let him come to you with questions. In an individual email this wouldn't be so bad, but I can see where some people would feel embarrassed (and the point isn't about whether they're right or wrong to: the point is avoiding an entirely unnecessary and easily anticipated point of tension) with this being lumped into a group email in front of everyone else.

Part of being a good leader is making sure that team members feel like they're being made to look good in front of each other by you

…and I do feel like you let John down here on that, at least by degrees, in multiple ways. This is especially important with new employees who are trying to fit into the group and still working on establishing themselves. This follows generally from the concept of praise in public and criticize/critique/reprimand in private.

When in doubt? Just err on the side of keeping the communication—or at least anything beyond the barest minimum—private. It also helps keep the public communication channels cleaner. I realize that one concept of Agile, including Scrum, is being aware (or at least able to be aware when it counts) of what's going on with everyone else, but a side to that is not overloading your entire Scrum team with extraneous details that stop it from being actually agile. Anyone would tell you: my writing style could be described as wordy, loquacious even (no, really?). But there's a time for brevity, and a lot of what makes Agile actually agile hinges on exercising it appropriately and trusting people to speak up or ask if they need more, rather than doing things like micro managing them.

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    This was a good input. – Mark Dec 1 '18 at 9:23

In my read on this I do not think you did anything really wrong here from a functional team level. But you may have made some assumptions on the ramp time needed for the new individual.

It is very common for folks to feel uncomfortable taking ownership for something until they feel that they have had time to ramp up to the familiarity level with product, processes and procedures. Your wording comes across as the individual is fully ready to engage.

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It looks like you sent an email to the whole group and singled out this individual publicly in the portion that you quoted. That is likely the reason that this employee was upset. In the future, if you need to address something with a specific employee, don't copy the rest of the team.

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It seems your new member is sensitive by the way you issue requests toward him, and interpret as orders what is implicit or ambiguous, which is something that happens often by writing.

If you are working with people that are easy to get defensive, trying to get your written language as clear as possible is key. A first tip is to avoid impersonal phrasing when issuing requests :

John, Chris asked if you could take ownership in organizing project delivery of the [small project name]. We would like you to confirm everything is ready.

And even better :

John, can you please take ownership of [small project name] project delivery and make sure everything ready ?

This is a nuancial change but it makes a really much better window for him to decline when he is directly asked than when being said "That's what must be done".

Additionally, as sf02 suggested, you should send this request to him privately.

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  • Put this together with the answer from @sf02 and this the correct answer IMO. One suggestion: as a great man, er dinosaur, said: "please and thank you are the magic words." I would go with: "... can you please take ownership of ... and make sure everything is ready?" If there's any chance John might balk at this request, it would be best to only send it to him initially. – JimmyJames Dec 3 '18 at 14:37

I don't think that anything is necessarily wrong with what you said or the words you used to say it.

I think that the issue is that you sent these directions meant for him to the entire team. It probably would have gone over smoother if you had sent that paragraph in an email directly to him and only him. Or better yet, gone up to him to discuss it with him. Seeing as he wanted to chat with you in person, he likely prefers face to face communication.

Putting directions for someone in an email sent to multiple people is super annoying because

  1. It implies that you don't trust him to do something you discuss privately--you need others to know and hold him accountable for it

  2. It comes off as a huge "CYA" thing so that everyone knows that you have directed him and now that they know, supposedly you've done your part and this is out of your hands

  3. To go along with point 1, the fact that this is getting sent to a bunch of people who don't have context, the way that you say that Chris asked you to take ownership could give others the impression that John has already received direction to do something and this email is a way of putting him on blast for not doing it yet, so let me tell you in front of everyone to pressure you to start doing it.

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  1. I cannot see the slightest problem with your email.

As I understand it you are the superior of X

  1. When X challenged you to "come aside" for "a talk" because you had "done something wrong", you should not have done it. People who work for you can't ask you to "come aside" for "a talk" because you have "done something wrong". In such a case, just look him in the eye, smile, and say "What's the problem?"

When he "told" you to not write public emails, you should have either:

3B. Said in two words "That's what we do here. All set? Let's get back to work!"

or if X makes an issue of it,

3B. You would say, "That's what we do here. X, maybe it's better if we discuss this with Y who hired you. Right? Let's go talk to him!" And then walk X over to Y.

Note that very unfortunately, it seems you "apologized" to X

  1. If, oddly, somehow who works for you directly criticizes your work practice, never apologize to them. What they are doing is (at best) offering their suggestions on work practices.

What I mean is, obviously if you accidentally poke them in the eye or vomit on them after a drinking session or whatever, of course apologize profusely. But you have nothing, whatsoever, to apologize for.

Given the facts of the matter as stated, the other guy X seems to be totally in the wrong on this one. And you unfortunately made a mistake by apologizing.

FWIW every single time ever I've given an "order" (I wouldn't put it that way), I cc EVERYONE so that we all feel like a happy family, with teamwork BS and so on. What possible reason could there be that someone doesn't want everything out in the open so that everyone knows what is going on?

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    So if somebody on a team you lead wants to have a private discussion (mind you, you have no idea what it is about), you'll deny them that? When somebody offers you a suggestion about how to interact with people, you just ignore them or even threaten to go to a higher-up? When a colleague tells you something you said offended them, you don't have the decency to say "sorry you feel that way, but that is not what I meant"? Sorry man, but I think in high school they'd call you a bully. – Jory Geerts Nov 30 '18 at 10:58
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    @Fattie And yet they are exactly what your answer says to do. Your answer outright says, "never step aside", "never apologise". – Tim B Nov 30 '18 at 13:18
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    Sure they do. How is 'When X asked you to "come aside" for a talk, you should not have done it.' not the same as 'So if somebody on a team you lead wants to have a private discussion, you'll deny them that?'? How is "lets talk to Y who hired you" meant to be taken if not as a threat to go to somebody higher in the food chain? – Jory Geerts Nov 30 '18 at 13:21
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    This is the classic "bad management" answer. "you work for me, I am the Leader, get busy". Managers should focus on enabling their team to get work done, not on demonstrating how important they are. – DaveG Nov 30 '18 at 15:57
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    @Fattie No, the OP is NOT "the superior of X". OP says " Im not his manager and he doesn't report to me". OP is team lead, which makes him more of a coordinator, not a boss. – DaveG Dec 1 '18 at 20:29

The only thing you did wrong was hiring the new team member. You will have to be clear ; a new member who is under performance review is not in position for bargaining with you.

Stress to him if you were to fire him, the company would only lose something like a week of his salary. Order him do exactly what he agreed in interview, or go for a new interview with someone else.

Please consider issuing a warning letter.

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    OP didn't hire him, he's just leading the Agile team. – user87779 Nov 30 '18 at 9:16
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    The company would lose all the time and money it cost them to find the current hire plus all the time and money required to get a replacement, and all the money lost through lower capacity while they are looking, plus also the time and money lost trying to train him for his new position. – Erik Nov 30 '18 at 9:45
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    To help improve this answer, I'm providing some feedback (downvotes don't feel good and it helps to understand why): firing and threats of firing are usually best reserved as a last resort after trying a number of other things first. And of course this presumes that the OP is in the right, which I disagree with personally. But for me the downvote was due to the advice to jump straight to firing without going through the correction chain first. It's analogous to advising divorce at the first sign of any marital conflict--it's costly and skips many important steps. Anyway I hope this helps. – bob Nov 30 '18 at 16:06
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    I completely agree with you with one small but important addition: anyone who disobeys management repeatedly after appropriate correction and training needs to go. And that's the point I'm making. This answer as worded seems to want to skip that middle part. If that's not the intent, then it could just be a wording issue. – bob Nov 30 '18 at 16:49
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    And of course sometimes apparent disobedience is just a misunderstanding, so I'd add after clarification in there too. It shouldn't just be assumed that the employee is in the wrong. – bob Nov 30 '18 at 16:50

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