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What your email says about your place in the hierarchy: study

What your email says about your place in the hierarchy: study

Posting in Technology

Analysis of more than 500,000 email messages from now-defunct Enron reveals most common phrases used to assert authority, or to talk to higher-ups.

The public release of Enron's internal emails represent more than part of a process of legal discovery that helped uncover the misdeeds of a crooked company. They now serve as a treasure trove of interactions that can be studied to understand relationships between managers and employees in a modern enterprise.

That's what Eric Gilbert of the Georgia Institute of Technology had in mind when he recently undertook a study of the common phrases which suggest power over the recipient, versus email phrases that are meant to communicate to higher-ups. Gilbert's work was recently surfaced at the Freakonomics site.

Sifting through and analyzing 517,431 email messages sent by 151 people over the span of nearly four years he did uncover differences that demonstrate their places in the hierarchy.  As he explains it:

"Using the Enron corpus as a dataset, we perform a close study of the words and phrases people send to those above them in the corporate hierarchy versus those at the same level or lower. We find that certain words and phrases are strong predictors. For example, 'thought you would' strongly suggests that the recipient outranks the sender, while 'let’s discuss' implies the opposite. We also find that the phrases people write to their bosses do not demonstrate cognitive processes as often as the ones they write to others."

Below are the top 20 phrases most likely to be seen in emails sent to underlings, therefore reflecting power in the organization: (Of course, it being Enron, you can imagine the context of some power phrases, such as "we are in," which may have originally been part of "we are in deep doo-doo.")

  1. have you been
  2. to manage the
  3. you gave
  4. let’s discuss
  5. we are in
  6. publicly
  7. title
  8. promotion
  9. need in
  10. good one
  11. opened
  12. determine the
  13. initiatives
  14. is difficult
  15. I would
  16. man
  17. we will probably
  18. number we
  19. any comments
  20. contact you

And here are the top 20 phrases most likely to be sent with emails going upward in the hierarchy, to bosses and managers:

  1. the ability to
  2. attach
  3. I took
  4. that we might
  5. are available
  6. the calendar
  7. kitchen
  8. can you get
  9. thought you would
  10. driving
  11. I’ll be
  12. thoughts on
  13. looks fine
  14. sh*t
  15. voicemail
  16. we can talk
  17. tremendous
  18. it does
  19. will you
  20. involving

I have no clue how "kitchen" (#7) got in there, perhaps readers out there can contribute some imaginative thoughts as to why you would refer to "kitchen" in an email to your boss. Perhaps in Enron's case, employees were telling their superiors: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the..."

(Photo by Joe McKendrick.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure