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How to E-Mail Like a C.E.O

Bruce Headlam.
Produced by
The New York Times

Microsoft may be broken up, Nasdaq may never get off the mat, but one artifact of the digital revolution is healthier than ever: e-mail remains the most popular online application, with more than 6.1 billion messages sent daily. Not only has e-mail opened up a whole new medium for personal correspondence, it has also launched the modern corporation into the Internet age with the promise to free workers from the tyranny of too much paper and too little time. It succeeded so spectacularly, however, that what was once blissfully asynchronous is now woefully chronic. For even moderately busy e-mailers, a hundred new messages a day is nothing out of the ordinary. Just as the answering machine gave us a reason to avoid the phone, e-mail has given us a new incentive to delay work in the morning: in-box dread.

The e-mail glut doesn't affect only individuals. AOL, Computer Associates, Intel -- a murderers' row of Internet companies -- have all tried various methods of restricting the volume of e-mail within their companies. Perversely, the few workable solutions to the surfeit of e-mail seem to involve even more e-mail. Multiple addresses, which many time-management experts recommend, make for fewer messages in each account but more accounts, and more time spent checking them all. Wireless e-mail lessens the scramble to wrap up correspondence before heading home for the night, but thereby leaves leisure hours vulnerable to e-mail's taint. If New York's subway authority makes good on its promise to provide wireless access in the tunnels, not even the morning commute will be safe.

Perhaps the only good thing about e-mail overload is the comforting thought that it is status-blind, that it strikes the highest executive and the lowliest supply clerk alike. After all, that was the promise from the very beginning: e-mail was going to be the great democratizing agent of corporate America, allowing an instant exchange of ideas unimpeded by gatekeepers and protocols. You were either in or you were out in the new corporation and, thanks to e-mail, you could be in anywhere -- all distances, whether geographic or hierarchical, would vanish into electronic ether.

Sadly, it hasn't worked out that way. Consider the research of David Owens, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University. Owens spent a year at a research firm in California, attending meetings and interviewing employees. The company (which he can't name as a condition of his research) was a model of New Economy egalitarianism. Aside from a small management team, everyone had the same job title; projects were voluntary, teams were self-forming and a good deal of internal communication took place electronically. Owens's initial interest was how people who work in a "flat" organizational structure distinguish themselves by using behavioral strategies, what sociologists like to call status signifiers. High-status employees, for example, sat near the head of the table during meetings. Those in the midstatus rung spoke the most. Low-status workers told jokes and made coffee.

Owens then looked at a sample of some 30,000 e-mail messages sent within the company over four years. What he found was that the messages had status signifiers that divided the senders into the same categories he observed in face-to-face meetings. "You can't interrupt someone in an e-mail or use body language," Owens said in an interview. "But people are finding other ways of getting social distinctions in there."

High-status employees, for example, tended to send short, curt messages, in part to minimize contact with lower-status workers but also to convey comfort with their own authority. (A typical example from Owens's study: "Agenda items: Update on people, equipment, collab space, etc.") Midstatus employees, by contrast, tend to produce long, argumentative messages laden with jargon or overexplicated answers to simple questions. ("I vote for the March date, since it seems to me that a smaller, earlier, more focused meeting is better at this preliminary stage.") Surprisingly, senior managers -- who take the longest to reply to e-mail messages -- are the least likely to use the carbon-copy function ("cc") because, Owens suggested, they want to appear to be managing other people individually. Perhaps less surprisingly, bosses tend to have the poorest spelling and worst grammar, conveying the sense that they have better things to do with their time.

Owens's findings are so striking, and so consistent, that they could serve as an unintended primer for those who want to be a boss, or at least want to be mistaken for one. If your e-mail messages are late, unevenly capitalized and sloppy, you could be C.E.O. material. If your e-mail messages are earnest and combative, or if you run them through spell-check before hitting send, then you may be destined for middle management. And if you ever use e-mail to forward jokes, send greeting cards or use happy-face "emoticons" -- well, you're giving yourself away. These are all strategies used to build social relationships within a company, to provide a kind of social lubrication. ("Gee, what a neat tie!") Owens acknowledges that those who do so play "an important role that tends to be greatly underestimated." But they are almost always low-status workers.

What Owens's findings suggest is that, while communication may move at close to the speed of light, the mechanics of office politics grind on at their own predigital pace. The transmission of e-mail was so captivating that we neglected to look at what those transmissions were saying. Senior executives appeared to be immediately accessible, but beneath their artfully casual missives was a case study straight out of "Up the Organization." (Owens also found that, within the company's message boards, high-status employees had their own secure mailing lists, the electronic equivalent of the key to the executive washroom.)

In some respects, the presence of e-mail has cheapened the very idea of access. Forty years ago, William Hewlett routinely walked through the offices of Hewlett-Packard, often sitting down with his own engineers to work on a problem. Today, all a C.E.O. has to do is make his e-mail account available to his employees, and he's considered cutting edge. This is not to say that e-mail hasn't succeeded in other areas where the questions of social status remain central -- which is why it's the perfect medium for flirting. But it failed to move the corner office any closer to the water cooler. Meet the new boss; sme az the olde boss.

Bruce Headlam is an editor for the Circuits section of The Times.

(c) Copyright: The New York Times

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