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First, Give Me the Good News

Photonics Spectra
Sep 1999
Robert C. Pini

A new business school study proposes that e-mail may be changing our behavior in ways we are not even aware of. We may be getting down to more straight talk. Yes, that's right.

The study, which appeared in the June issue of Information Systems Research, found that people are more likely to deliver personal news without sugarcoating and dissembling when they communicate by e-mail.

"We have this notion that people always prefer to do things face-to-face," said Stephanie Watts Sussman, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of information systems at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. But, she said, when it comes to criticism, "we found that people prefer to use e-mail."

Sussman and co-author Lee Sproull, Leonard N. Stern professor of business at New York University, recruited 117 participants to convey goo d and bad news to others using three types of media. Their results indicated that people convey constructive criticism -- an important part of the learning process -- more clearly and with greater comfort by e-mail than by telephone or face-to-face meetings.

E-mail not spoken here

From Silicon Valley to the Swiss Alps, however, professionals take exception to the findings. "Anything that would be negative, we handle on a face-to-face, personal basis," said Eugene Martinez, human resources director at Varian Inc. in Walnut Creek, Calif. "We give people the respect and dignity they deserve."

At Nextrom SA in Lausanne, Switzerland, more than 1200 employees use e-mail to communicate among facilities in Europe, Canada and Brazil. Human resources manager Amidio Dicoro said the company is working to develop an e-mail culture that keeps people on the same wavelength. He found it hard to imagine the use of e-mail for personal news.

"I don't think it's appropriate for bad news, nor for a lot of good news," he said. Despite its potential, "the medium does not transmit the right power of the information," nor does it offer the opportunity "to look into people's eyes and see their feelings and interpret body language."

As people send and receive e-mail in ever-greater volume, they may become more open to unvarnished straight talk. Sussman said the honesty engendered by the medium also could help constructive criticism move up an organization from the bottom, and thereby advance institutional change. She plans next to study the experience of the recipient.

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