Thursday, December 16, 2010

Maknig to mayn tipos? Myabe ur teh boz

Undoubtedly one of the big differences between life today and in our Paleolithic past is the level of stress that modern humans face on a daily basis. Much stress happens at work, which is very different from what our Paleolithic ancestors would call work. Modern office work, in particular, would probably be seen as a form of slavery by our Paleolithic ancestors.

Some recent research suggests that organizational power distance is a big factor in work-related stress. Power distance is essentially the degree to which bosses and subordinates accept wide differences in organizational power between them (Hofstede, 2001).


I have been studying the topic of information overload for a while. It is a fascinating topic. People who experience it have the impression that they have more information to process than they can handle. They also experience significant stress as a result of it, and both the quality of their work and their productivity goes down.

Recently some colleagues and I conducted a study that included employees from companies in New Zealand, Spain, and the USA (Kock, Del Aguila-Obra & Padilla-Meléndez, 2009). These are countries whose organizations typically display significant differences in power distance. We found something unexpected. Information overload was much more strongly associated with power distance than with the actual amount of information employees had to process on a daily basis.

While looking for explanations to this paradoxical finding, I recalled an interview I gave way back in 2001 to the Philadelphia Inquirer, commenting on research by Dr. David A. Owens. His research uncovered an interesting phenomenon. The higher up in the organizational pecking order one was, the less the person was concerned about typos on emails to subordinates.

There is also some cool research by Carlson & Davis (1998) suggesting that bosses tend to pick the communication media that are the most convenient for them, and don’t care much about convenience for the subordinates. One example would be calling a subordinate on the phone to assign a task, and then demanding a detailed follow-up report by email.

As a side note, writing a reasonably sized email takes a lot longer than conveying the same ideas over the phone or face-to-face (Kock, 2005). To be more precise, it takes about 10 times longer when the word count is over 250 and the ideas being conveyed are somewhat complex. For very short messages, a written medium like email is fairly convenient, and the amount of time to convey ideas may be even shorter than by using the phone or doing it face-to-face.

So a picture started to emerge. Bosses choose the communication media that are convenient for them when dealing with subordinates. If the media are written, they don’t care about typos at all. The subordinates use the media that are imposed on them, and if the media are written they certainly don’t want something with typos coming from them to reach their bosses. It would make them look bad.

The final result is this. Subordinates experience significant information overload, particularly in high power distance organizations. They also experience significant stress. Work quality and productivity goes down, and they get even more stressed. They get fat, or sickly thin. Their health deteriorates. Eventually they get fired, which doesn’t help a bit.

What should you do, if you are not the boss? Here are some suggestions:

- Try to tactfully avoid letting communication media being imposed on you all the time by your boss (and others). Explicitly state, in a polite way, the media that would be most convenient for you in various circusmtances, both as a receiver and sender. Generally, media that support oral speech are better for discussing complex ideas. Written media are better for short exchanges. Want an evolutionary reason for that? As you wish: Kock (2004).

- Discuss the ideas in this post with your boss; assuming that the person cares. Perhaps there is something that can be done to reduce power distance, for example. Making the work environment more democratic seems to help in some cases.

- And ... dot’n wrory soo mach aobut tipos ... which could be extrapolated to: don’t sweat the small stuff. Most bosses really care about results, and will gladly take an email with some typos telling them that a new customer signed a contract. They will not be as happy with an email telling them the opposite, no matter how well written it is.

Otherwise, your organizational demise may come sooner than you think.


Carlson, P.J., & Davis, G.B. (1998). An investigation of media selection among directors and managers: From "self" to "other" orientation. MIS Quarterly, 22(3), 335-362.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kock, N. (2004). The psychobiological model: Towards a new theory of computer-mediated communication based on Darwinian evolution. Organization Science, 15(3), 327-348.

Kock, N. (2005). Business process improvement through e-collaboration: Knowledge sharing through the use of virtual groups. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

Kock, N., Del Aguila-Obra, A.R., & Padilla-Meléndez, A. (2009). The information overload paradox: A structural equation modeling analysis of data from New Zealand, Spain and the U.S.A. Journal of Global Information Management, 17(3), 1-17.


Aaron Blaisdell said...

Very cool! a) I'm glad I'm the boss. b) I try to run my lab with an egalitarian power structure (with some appropriate constraints). c) I am a terrible speller, and so I am very forgiving of other people's spelling errors. Poor grammar, however, drives me up the wall, and I have very low tolerance for it.

I strongly agree with your perspective of email or texting as being best suited for short and simple communications while longer and more complex communications are optimally conveyed by oral/verbal forms of communication.

Being a professor, I've noticed over the years that my students expect more and more from virtual forms of communication. I have become much more explicit and direct about what email should and should not be used for. Office hours, where the student can meet with me face-to-face is to be used for discussing course material, etc., while email can be used to arrange face-to-face appointments with me. I tell them in the syllabus that I will not respond to emails about course content, even if it's a short and simple question (which doesn't necessarily imply a short and simple answer!).

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Forgot to mention in my first comment that this topic would be an excellent addition to the Ancestral Health Symposium! Are you planning to attend? Our speaking list is full and has a long wait list, but we have plenty of room for poster presentations. Of course, there will be many opportunities to speak at the annual symposium in subsequent years.

Helen said...


I hate seeing typos in what I write - I doubt that trait would change much if I were the boss. But I have noticed this trend - it correlates with the illegible handwriting doctors - and other bosses - are famous for.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Aaron. Right now it doesn’t look like I will be able to make it to the Symposium, but I think it is a very nice initiative. Are you one of the organizers?

Ned Kock said...

Hi Helen. Maybe you’d get someone to copyedit your written communications. Another interesting trend that we’ve seen in our research on information overload was of bosses using employees to handle information for them. This way one gets the impression that they are able to process enormous amounts of information without being information overloaded, and with no typos going outside a small circle of aides.

Gretchen said...

It wasn't too long ago that bosses were buffered by secretaries, who cleaned up the spelling and grammar mistakes as they typed up the dictation.

I knew one some years ago who actually changed the content in her boss's grant applications.

Those days are gone, as far as I know, but the attitude that the boss's grasp of basic English isn't important may have persisted.

And the generation coming along, raised on Twitter, may think phonetic spelling is just fine.

Helen said...

Copy-editing is my line. (But does not guarantee my blog comments are error-free.) And, yes, I used to have that kind of job in a development department for a nonprofit, writing all sort of things signed by the boss.