E-mail Language: What are your e-mails saying about your leadership?

March 8, 2012

Leaders and subordinates telegraph their position of authority based on the e-mail language they use, according to Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. He analyzed more than 500,000 e-mails from Enron employees and made some interesting discoveries.

First, Gilbert weeded out e-mails that might be tainted by Enron’s collapse/SEC investigation and other e-mails that didn’t go directly upward or downward in Enron hierarchy. Then, he let the dataset speak. What he learned is that certain phrases can be used to predict rank of the employee. Managers, for instance, frequently write “have you been,” “let’s discuss,” and “determine the”. They relay instructions, check on work being done, and seek clarification. Not surprisingly, their e-mails often indicate approval or disapproval (both “good one” and “the problem is” ranked pretty high).

Subordinates are more suggestive and deferential in their e-mails. They frequently write “thought you would,” “that we might,” and “please change”. They do, however, want to convey action (“I took”) and confidence/bravado (a four-letter word beginning with “s” ranked very high).

As for days of the week, subordinates often refer to the “weekend” (presumably because they want to draw attention to the work they’ve done or will do over the weekend) and managers use “Monday” a lot (presumably because they want to see the work their subordinates did over the weekend).

In short, leaders use a lot of declarative phrases and suggestions to encourage work, and subordinates rely a bit more on innuendo to navigate around those with more authority–a topic richly covered by Prof Steve Pinker at Harvard.

What e-mail language do you use the most? Do they accurately reflect your authority and leadership style?

For a short 3-minute interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish and Professor Eric Gilbert, click play.

Reach your next peak

We help leaders expand the change they want to see in their teams, organizations, and the wider world.