Ideas for Leaders #196

Peer-to-Peer Deference in Email Communication

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Key Concept

Emails have fast become the most widely-used form of written communication in business, both externally and internally within organizations. This Idea looks at the relationship between hierarchy and the language used in emails, showing that surprisingly, peer-to-peer communication tends to contain more signs of deference than subordinate-superior communication.

Idea Summary

Hierarchies are everywhere, and the business world is no exception; the distribution of power and status has become a defining feature of today’s organizations. What role, if any, do such ranks play in communication between members of these organizations? This was the thought underlying a recent study led by Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Alison Fragale. Alongside her co-researchers, Fragale set out to examine the language used in emails exchanged within organizations, in order to gain insight into how hierarchy affects the way we communicate.

Specifically, they looked for signs of ‘deference’ (i.e. behaviours that convey a willingness to yield to another’s preferences or opinions). The common conception is that low-ranked individuals would almost always display deference when interacting with higher-ranked individuals.

However, the researchers found that the greatest amount of verbal deference tends to be displayed laterally in an organizational hierarchy, peer-to-peer. In other words, members of a hierarchy, even those of highest rank, will often express the greatest amount of respect to peers of equal or similar status. On the other hand, the same is not necessarily true vertically; email communication between subordinate and superiors did not show the greatest amount of deference.  This suggests that people may express deference because they believe that doing so will be beneficial, rather than on the basis of hierarchy.

Furthermore, they found that the greatest amount of deference is displayed by those communicators who are most concerned with protecting their status; those that want to gain status or are afraid of losing it. As such, deference may be used as a ‘status saving’ strategy to protect against the undesirable status loss associated with an individual overestimating their status.

Methodology: Two studies were undertaken. In the first, archived emails written by the now defunct Enron Corporation’s employees were used to examine communication styles between members of different ranks within an organization. Hedges (such as “kind of”, “maybe”, etc.) and disclaimers (such as “this may be a bad idea, but…” and “I hate to complain, but…”) were particularly looked out for. In addition, instances of unassertive, agreeable, polite, and formal communication were noted. However, as the first study only considered a single organization, a second study was also undertaken in which emails from just over 200 management professionals from various organizations were similarly analyzed.

Business Application

Why is it useful for executives to take note of these findings on email communication? Well, according to Fragale et al, deference behaviours may affect how others perceive a communicator; in other words, simply being polite can potentially act as a specific form of influence, whether intentional or not, and like any other type of communicative act it has the potential to bring about change in the message recipient.

Understanding how people in your organization are communicating not just with you, but with each other, can provide valuable psychological insight into the way they may perceive themselves and their status, and be perceived across the organization.

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