June 25, 1999 LINTHICUM, MD, June 23 - Delivering bad news by e-mail rather than personally or by phone insures a more accurate message and less discomfort for the messenger, according to a study in a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).
The study, "Straight Talk: Delivering Bad News Through Electronic Communication," appears in the current issue of Information Systems Research, an INFORMS publication. The authors are Stephanie Watts Sussman, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Lee Sproull, Boston University School of Management. Prof. Sproull begins a position at the New York University Stern School of Business next month.
The authors note that businesses and other organizations are affected by what earlier studies describe as "The Mum Effect:" Because communicating bad news is hard not only for the recipient but also the messenger, people are reluctant to deliver bad news and often distort or delay news to avoid the unpleasant task.
"Your project has been cancelled ... you didn't get the promotion ... you have to rewrite the report. No one likes to hear bad news; few people like to deliver it either," write the authors.
"However, in organizations, receiving bad news or negative information can be a first step toward improvement."
Implications for Organizations
Their conclusion that "computer-mediated communication" (CMC) can increase honesty and accuracy in delivering negative information challenges current norms. Nowadays, the authors note, personal delivery of bad news is a signal that the news is important and that the deliverer cares about the recipient. Delivering bad news electronically flies in the face of these norms and might cause the recipient to discount the news or take offense at the choice of delivery media.
This may change, the authors believe.
"The increasingly widespread use of electronic media for organizational communication may alter these norms over time, especially in instances where face-to-face interaction is not possible due to geographical separation," the authors write.
The researchers also suggest that management may find staff more forthcoming when they can deliver an unpopular message using e-mail.
"Subordinates are frequently the first to learn of bad news, but are often loathe to convey it to their superiors," they write. "Electronic information delivery might be particularly useful in upward communication situations, where negative information is often distorted."
A New Take on Flaming
The authors believe their research may also help explain the phenomenon of "flaming."
"Flaming has been cited as evidence that computer-mediated communication may 'cause' hostile communication behavior," they write. "This study suggests an alternative explanation. People seem to do less 'cushioning the blow' of negative information when they use computer-mediated communication."
Building on previous research in this area, the authors conducted an experiment with 117 subjects, all Boston University undergraduates. The participants delivered positive or negative information to fellow students in one of three ways: (1) in person; (2) by phone; or (3) by e-mail.
The task entailed delivering feedback to a "student" about his or her résumé, which the student had submitted to the campus career counseling center for comments and recommendations. For purposes of the experiment, the résumé belonged to a surrogate student whom the participant believed was a real student.
Participants were given a description of the task, the annotated résumé, and a list of feedback items to be delivered.
After completing the experimental task, participants filled out a questionnaire that included the measures of satisfaction and relationship. The authors analyzed responses taking into account how the message was delivered.
Pointing out students' mistakes caused considerable discomfort for the communicators, the researchers found. Their research shows that participants distorted negative information less when using computer-mediated communication than in the face-to-face condition. There was essentially no negative distortion of positive information in any of the communications.
There was no significant difference in frequency of distortion of negative information between participants communicating face-to-face and participants communicating via telephone. However, those using telephone distort negative information significantly more than do those using computer-mediated communication.
The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work primarily in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications.
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