Sunday, July 21, 2013

Check your (email) attitude!

This week’s post gives me a lot of (fairly un-scientific) satisfaction. Times have changed. The average professional no longer limits their time with supervisors to face-to-face meetings, and in fact at least 96% of professionals use email to manage their workflow and interact with their coworkers. For me, this means that I can maintain research collaborations with colleagues in Switzerland with ease and hold review sessions for my students in pajamas using online chat rooms; but all of these perks come with a cost. For example, I get emails from my students at all hours of the day and night that begin with “So, why do we have to...” and of course do not include any pleasantries like “please” or “thank you.”

Everyone has their own idea of what an email communication should look like, which can range from emoticons and mms abbreviations to Proustian prose; but if email has become a primary mode of professional communication, do differences in email etiquette impact your work or even well-being?


For me the answer is yes. I am much more productive when I am in a good mood, and receiving rude or hard to interpret emails gets in the way of that productive good mood. For years I have led a charge against rude email culture, and have been met with opposition by mentors and peers who believe that including pleasantries in emails is “a waste of time,” “inefficient,” and just plain impossible given how many emails we receive and answer each day. Luckily, I no longer need to lead this charge alone because Dr. Gary Giumetti of Quinnipiac University and his colleagues conducted a study asking the question:

Does email incivility impair productivity?

To do this, they recruited 84 undergraduate students who were asked to take on the role of an entry-level employee of an accounting firm to compare face-to-face and email supervision of tasks. What the participants did not know was that they all were assigned to receive email supervision. During the study, each participant completed 2 sets of math problems (a total of 60 problems) that had been adapted from the GRE. Each participant completed one set of math problems while receiving rude supervisor feedback via email, and one set of math problems while receiving supportive supervisor feedback. In this study, rude supervisors would send emails like, “Try these next tasks, genius” while the supportive supervisor emails said, “I really appreciate your help on these tasks.” The research team then compared participants performance and accuracy on the math problems, heart rate, mood, and self-reported energy throughout the study.

They found that individuals were faster, more accurate, and reported higher positive mood, lower negative mood and more energy when they were being supportively supervised than when they were being rudely supervised. They found that completing both sets of math problems resulted in dramatic increases in heart rate for most participants; however there were no differences in heart rate between the two conditions.

These findings have a lot of implications for us since we all write and receive emails every day. Most importantly, some companies find it useful to berate employees via email and claim it results in higher productivity. This study would suggest the opposite. Employees receiving critical, rude, and sarcastic supervisor emails are actually making more mistakes and under-performing as a result.

What I still wonder about this finding are where ambiguous emails fit into the model. Most of us are getting emails that are neither rude nor supportive, so do they have the same effects? I can’t tell you how many times I have received an email from a colleague, student or even a friend that conveys no sense of personality, care, or even basic punctuation. My peers and I have spent more time than we want to admit trying to interpret email with no punctuation; wondering, “Is this a question? An instruction? A joke? A failed attempt at sarcasm? Am I in trouble?”

By adopting email to communicate with colleagues, we have chosen to discount the importance on non-verbal cues that help us read one another’s needs, meaning and intentions. For example, “I needed this yesterday” in a face-to-face meeting could be paired with an understanding smile or an angry glare. In an email, the sentence could be followed by an exclamation point, or a J, conveying something very different in each case.

The bottom line here is that supportive emails resulted in better performance, and better employee psychological well-being (energy, mood). Objectively and subjectively, that should be reason enough for any supervisor to take an extra second to craft supportive emails. Take a second to address your employees by name, thank them for what they do for you, use please where appropriate, and trying asking how your employee is doing every once in a while. Your employees are people too, and email incivility hurts everyone.    

Giumetti, G. W., Hatfield, A. L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder, A. N., Muth, E. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (2013). What a rude e-mail! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(3), 297.

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