The bias that makes work emails more negative to us than they are

Recipients of emails are often exposed to so-called negative escalation bias.

Recipients of emails are often exposed to so-called negative escalation bias.


But neither the best of intentions nor the greatest of care will necessarily suffice to avoid problems.

This is because the person who reads an email is frequently subjected to what is called “negative intensification bias”. They often perceive negative messages in emails that the sender had no intention of including or exaggerate any hint of negativity.

Office workers spend approximately 2.5 hours each day composing and reading emails. The vast majority of them report receiving emails that they describe as offensive or disrespectful, at least from time to time. In a study by the National University of Singapore, 91% of those consulted said they received emails of this type from their superiors.

Given the volume of emails in any workplace, it seems inevitable that there will be the occasional negative exchange. However, some features of the mail can make matters worse and increase the likelihood of miscommunication and more serious conflicts.

In face-to-face communication, those of us who communicate can observe the reaction to our message and clarify possible misunderstandings in the moment, while with the mail that possible reaction is necessarily delayed.

Email also reduces the so-called “social presence”, the perception that the person on the other side is real. Delayed response increases the risk of misunderstandings, and low social presence can reduce inhibition of potential angry responses.

The risk of misunderstandings

Anyone who sends and receives emails knows the problems that can arise. A Google search will find hundreds of articles on how to avoid it. And there is good reason to pay attention.

Three people chat animatedly.

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In face-to-face communication, it is easier to correct misunderstandings instantly.

Emails that people consider rude, insulting or rude create stress, distract from productivity and affect well-being, even outside of work.

Basic tips on how to avoid these problems include not using the “reply to all” option much, being cautious in the use of humor, assuming that the message is not confidential, and asking a colleague to review what we have written before sending. a particularly delicate mail.

But all this care is not enough to solve the problem and ignores the fact that those who receive the emails are active processors of information, with their own sensitivity, background and knowledge when interpreting the message.

Perceived negativity

In our research, we asked 276 adults in New Zealand and Australia who used mail regularly to give an example of an email they received that conveyed negative emotion.

We asked them questions about the mail and then asked objective observers to read the same messages. The people who had received them rated the emails much more negatively than those who had nothing to do with them.

The difference was even greater when the participants’ organization had a climate in which negative communications were frequent and when the sender was someone higher in the hierarchy.

This shows a negative intensification bias; that is, an inclination to perceive more negativity than is apparently present in the message, showing that context and relationships can influence how much we perceive negativity.

Woman in front of her computer.

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The perception of negativity is usually higher when the sender is a superior.

The effect of power dynamics

Some of the examples would have been negative for almost everyone: “If you learned to read you would have found the important document.”

But many were apparently respectful and correct. “We recognize that our request came at short notice and we realize that he is very busy,” read one.

In fact, the lack of overtly negative characteristics in a message did not serve to predict people’s perception of negativity.

Hyper-negative interpretations of messages were more likely in ambiguous messages, which could be interpreted in different ways.

Email icons in a photo montage.

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Companies must consider the problem of perceived negativity in their employees’ communications.

It was detected especially in short and impersonal messages and when the sender was a hierarchical superior making requests or communicating directives, or when there was a previous tension between sender and recipient.

Interestingly, the more conscientious council employees were to avoid misunderstandings or offenses, the higher they raised the threshold for what they considered acceptable. The participants’ explanations of why an email was viewed as negative often cited rules and guidelines for proper communication in this way.

As our society has developed a vision of what is acceptable, a hastily written or abbreviated email can be seen as a willful disdain.

If organizations want to reduce the chances of conflict in their email communications, the training that staff receive on how to compose emails must be supplemented with similar attention to receiving messages and negative escalation bias.

It is impossible, even for the most careful sender, to anticipate all potential causes of offense in a written communication.. Communication training should focus on raising awareness of the many opportunities for misunderstanding in the mail and the tendency of recipients to perceive inadvertent negativity in the sender.

Recognizing the role of power dynamics and the general climate in our organization will also help. And showing how internal tensions can be perceived in something as seemingly innocent as a short email can help improve relationships in the workplace in general.

*Theodore E (Ted) Zorn is Professor of Communication in Organizations at Massey University in New Zealand.

This note originally appeared on The Conversation and is published here under a Creative Commons license.

You can read the original article here.


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