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We Know How You Email Your Boss

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You might think emailing the boss is a deeply personal process, but a recent study found that we all tend to show deference up the corporate ladder in the same way. Unless your boss is your pal and you're working alongside each other in the trenches (or converted garage) of a more-or-less egalitarian startup, you're probably going to sweat over the emails you're sending him or her. The question is, how does that affect your productivity?

You might think emailing the boss is a deeply personal process, but a recent study found that we all tend to show deference up the corporate ladder in the same way. Unless your boss is your pal and you’re working alongside each other in the trenches (or converted garage) of a more-or-less egalitarian startup, you’re probably going to sweat over the emails you’re sending him or her. The question is, how does that affect your productivity?

dog worker 

(Photo Credit: Will Brenner/Flickr)

Researcher Erik Gilbert at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that we tend to use certain language when we’re emailing our bosses. If we’re “emailing up the ladder,” we’ll be more verbose, polite, formal, and deferential in our tone. You might have written something similar at one point: “Joe, I’d be pleased to set up a conference call where we can discuss the Q4 numbers in depth. Please let me know what time would work for you on Wednesday afternoon. I think there are some great optimization opportunities we can leverage in the coming fiscal quarter.” And so forth. Whereas, if you’re writing a coworker or someone “down the ladder” you might keep things quick and snappy, like: “Janice are you done with teh Thompson file? – Ted”

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What really happened here:

It’s more likely that Ted spent a lot longer picking out just the right words for his email to his boss, whereas he probably typed the note to Janice one-handed on his Blackberry on his way to grab a coffee. Also likely is that Ted thought “what would make my boss think I’m super smart and really good at my job?” when he wrote Joe. Whereas he just wants the dang Thompson file from Janice.

Just how much time are you wasting over-thinking that email to your boss?

The answer is TONS. Back in 2012, The Atlantic calculated we’re spending 650 HOURS per year just writing and responding to emails. That’s 13 hours a week or 28 percent of our regular office time. That might not even mean emails that are solving a problem or figuring out anything. They might be simply proposing meeting times, looping someone in on a conversation, trying to figure out who has the Thompson file open. Not the most productive use of some serious smart people’s time, now is it?

How to really be a better employee:

Of course you can’t be careless with your tone or your spelling when you email the boss. What you can do is cut down on the inbox clutter by trying to be judicious with your email. Think of them as a limited quantity. Like, you only have so many “email stamps” and you shouldn’t waste any of them. Look at the email you’re about to type: is it really worth it? Could you just go ask someone the question? Maybe just go over to Janice’s desk and see if she has that Thompson folder. Maybe stop by your boss’s office and see if they have five minutes to chat about the Q4 numbers. You probably should try to walk around more anyway. 

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What’s the right tone for office emails? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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