‘Make sure you keep your boss in the loop’
This classic, age-old wisdom has been passed around, with the best intentions, for years now. But a recent set of studies undertaken say that copying your boss, leader or manager in email threads simply to ‘keep them in the loop’ results in reduced trust among colleagues.
What is the study?
David De Cremer, KPMG professor of management studies at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, headed a series of six studies (experiments and surveys) to understand how cc’ing team leaders impacts organisational trust. He talks about his study and the results in Harvard Business Review. Although the academic paper is under review and the findings preliminary, the study has established an inverse relationship between the frequency of copying your boss in emails and trust levels.
What are the findings of the study?
In the experimental studies (done with 594 working adults), the results showed that the situations wherein the manager was ‘always’ cc'ed, the recipient of the email felt significantly less trusted.
This was in comparison to those who ‘sometimes’ or ‘almost never’ cc’ed their bosses. Furthermore, the organisational survey (conducted with 345 employees) mirrored the same results, as more often the respondent perceived that a co-worker copied their supervisor, the less trusted they felt by the co-worker in question. The author goes on to claim that this deficiency of trust manifests itself as a culture of fear and low psychological safety, forcing employees to infer that organisational culture must be low in trust overall.
The study says that regardless of the geographical position, the trend prevails, as both western and Chinese employees saw copying in leaders as a potentially threatening move. However, the author also says that those who copy in their supervisor in emails regularly are well-aware of the fact that this action will lead to reduced trust levels. This means when your colleague adds your boss to the email thread, they may be doing so strategically, fully knowing the effect it is likely to create.
What does the author of the study infer?
David De Cremer writes, “First of all, these findings clearly show that complete transparency in electronic communications is not the “Holy Grail” that every organization has been waiting for to promote efficiency and collaboration... Second, my findings suggest that supervisors should consider how often they’re included on communication between co-workers as not just a time management issue but also a cultural issue... Finally, my findings serve as a warning for companies that are increasingly making use of team collaboration software like Confluence, Office 365, Slack, and Yammer to promote productivity.”
How does this impact me?
The findings of the study are relevant to almost every working individual who itches to add their boss in the ‘cc’ every time they reply to an email. As the study shows, this is done with the knowledge and awareness that it will lead to reduced trust levels. If you too have a habit of including your boss in every other interaction you undertake on your email, be warned; you might be inadvertently indicating that you don’t trust your colleagues. Additionally, as the author of the study writes “rampant cc’ing leads workers and managers to squander precious time sorting through unnecessary messages.”
The study also shows that seemingly trivial actions and processes can adversely impact workplace collaboration. Even if one copies in their boss, with the best of intentions (increasing transparency, collaboration or cross checking the contents of the email); the outcome of such a step likely to outweigh the benefits it could have potentially provided. Furthermore, relying on electronic communication to establish transparency could prove to be a fatal move, and could backfire, as the results show. So what does one do? David concludes rather fittingly, “Organizations will have to explain the purpose of including everyone involved in a project in the communications around it, so that the transparency is not perceived as a way to assess and monitor the performance and behaviours of the people on the team.”