Work e-mail is the purest form of hierarchy there is

Before we get into this, let’s just be clear up front: e-mail is probably one of the worst things mankind has wrought upon us. There’s a ton of topics in the general ‘working world’ that we never discuss, but should discuss — because those topics pretty much define everything that happens between people in cubicles and offices. The most notable example is failure; that happens every second in most offices, and yet, we often decide to gloss it over with a new, cheapened success metric.

Another is collaboration — it’s the essence of the human experience, right? Thing is, not a soul wants to actually collaborate at the office. A third one (there’s hundreds) would be communication; everyone runs around claiming that it’s essential, yet most people are lip-servicing the concept.

Here’s another one. Darden (UVA) business school professors are smarter people than I am, so I’ll let their wording ring this one out:

Thomas-Hunt and her co-authors, Oliver J. Sheldon and Chad A. Proell, were “interested in the ways collaborations go awry, or don’t reach their full potential,” she says. There was little empirical data on the impact of pacing on collaborations, but the research team felt it was a critical issue to explore.

“In any collaboration, you have people who are working simultaneously on other projects, juggling multiple priorities,” Thomas-Hunt says. “One person may want to move faster than another, and we wanted to see the impact on the person who is perceived as delaying.”

 How do people get work done in teams?

OK. Let’s follow the bouncing ball here.

So where does this leave us?

On most projects, you’ve got people ‘engaged’ on it who are, in fact, at varying levels of engagement: some care a lot (they “own” it), some care in the middle, and some barely care at all.

But still, you’ve gotta move that project on. Deliverables! ROI! KPIs! Etc, etc.

Because of people’s competing priorities, general human laziness, and a host of other factors, a good deal of collaboration — or what we can loosely call collaboration — ends up happening on reply-all threads, which are just about the worst f**king thing ever concocted. As far as e-mail goes, the only thing worse might be out-of-office.

The role (or lack thereof) of e-mail in collaboration

Alright, so we’re at a topic that influences so much — essentially, how does work get done when people’s priorities are at odds with each other? — and there’s little research on it, probably because every researcher is over there chasing some crap about ‘authentic leadership’ or something.

Here’s the experiment UVA set up. Like any experiment, it has flaws:

To simulate remote-work collaborations, she and two colleagues from Cornell University ran an experiment in which volunteers worked via instant messaging with an unknown partner, who was described as having lots of related experience (high status) or none (low status.) The volunteer rank-ordered a number of items, submitted his or her scheme to the partner and received back a standardized feedback message, either on time or with a delay.

Alright, so status … deliverables … feedback … time … etc.

Let’s go to the findings:

The results? Low-status partners who submitted delayed feedback were “punished” by being ranked as less competent post-task than they were pre-task. And their influence, as measured by how often their feedback was integrated, also shrank.

By contrast, high-status delayers were not only forgiven for the delay, they seemed to be held in greater esteem because of it. Experiment volunteers ranked their high-status delaying partners as more competent at the end of the task than at the beginning.

What can we learn about e-mail and collaboration?

So the essential takeaway:

  • If you’re low in status, you get in trouble for coming late to a reply-all party.
  • If you’re high in status, you’re almost revered for it.

In a nutshell, this is part of the reason hierarchy will never go away. People need the ability to rise up to a level where they can chime in late on an e-mail, potentially change the entire course of the existing workflow, and then smile to themselves about the ‘leadership’ they just displayed in doing that. Honestly, a good percentage of management and leadership to most people is the ability to set fires around their organization — to swoop in later and resolve them.

The bottom line here with reply-all and collaboration and the timing of projects is simple: e-mail is a representation of the power structure of your organization. If you’re low, most things you do on there can be penalized; if you’re high, you can e-mail your secretary a picture of your junk and probably get a 10K raise for it. If you throw up an out-of-office and someone above you e-mails you, you best be responding in 30 minutes; if someone below you e-mails you? F**k ’em, they can wait. Respect the sanctity of my OOO!

There’s no point in having a hierarchy and/or power structure unless there are multiple elements of said hierarchy that can be flexed on a daily basis. Who buys a sports car and doesn’t drive that sh*t around in front of their neighbors? That’s all e-mail is.

I matter. You don’t.

I’ll chime in late and get revered. You chime in late and we’re docking you pay.

It’s essentially all a complex game of relationships and interactions defined by emotion instead of logic, and people need to understand e-mail is just a representation of that.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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