Thursday, March 18, 2010

Critique of Mano & Mesch on E-mail at Work

In a previous post, I critiqued a 2003 article by Friedman and Currall entitled “Conflict Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of E-mail Communication.” This post reviews a more recent article that brings out several important parts of the Friedman and Currall argument.

Article Reviewed: Mano, R. S., & Mesch, G. S. (2010). E-mail characteristics, work performance and distress. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(1), 61-69.

I found this article through a search for a present-day review of issues mentioned in my review of Friedman and Currall, whom Mano and Mesch cite. To quote the abstract, Mano and Mesch conclude (p. 61):

Using a secondary level analysis based on the Pew and American Life sample we show that extent, content, and increased volume of e-mail are (a) more frequently reported by managers than by non-managers (b) age, gender, marital status and education can become a critical issue (c) the amount of e-mail received and sent is positively related to work performance. 

Like Friedman and Currall, Mano and Mesch examined e-mail at work. Their general question for randomly dialed survey respondents (n = 394) was “the extent to which ‘.... using e-mail for work-related tasks has changed your work life’” (p. 65). Using factor analysis, they identified three major areas in which e-mail might affect respondents’ work life: work effectiveness, work distress, and work stress. In their construction, “work effectiveness” was improved if the use of e-mail increased the number of people communicated with, improved teamwork and awareness of current work events, saved time, and made the respondent more available to his/her colleagues.

“Work distress” involved the extent to which e-mail provided moments of relief, encouraged gossip, and made it too easy for people to reach the employee. “Work stress” asked whether e-mail made it impossible to get away from work, caused misunderstandings, was distracting, or added new sources of stress. Thus Mano and Mesch did not restrict their focus to the potential dispute-enlarging aspects of e-mail that had interested Friedman and Currall, but rather placed the alleged dispute-enhancing tendency into a context that took account of potential benefits of e-mail usage. Hence my critique of Friedman and Currall anticipated something similar to what I found in Mano and Mesch.

Mano and Mesch investigated four hypotheses, which boil down in general terms to the hunches that work effectiveness, stress, and distress are correlated with greater e-mail use (in terms of both time spent on e-mail and numbers of e-mails sent and received) and frequency of e-mail checking, but stress and distress are inversely correlated with the number of non-work¬related e-mails. I did not find their distinction between stress and distress to be either intuitively clear nor empirically crucial in most cases, and in this discussion thus sometimes adopt their reference to both as dimensions of “employees’ wellbeing” (p. 68) or other quality-of-life phrasings. Moreover, since they found that “e-mail with personal content neither contributes to work performance, nor is it detrimental,” and since personal e-mail was not in any event the core issue in their research, I will not focus on non-work-related e-mails. With these adjustments, their research hypotheses may be roughly phrased as the suggestion that greater e-mail use and frequency of checking is positively correlated with work effectiveness and negatively correlated with employee wellbeing. And this is essentially what they found.

The authors sought to nuance that suggestion with attention to several additional characteristics. Among such characteristics, they determined that organization size is negatively related to frequency of e-mail checking, and that numbers of e-mails are greater for managers than for non-managers. Mano and Mesch attribute the decreased well-being for employees that arises from increased e-mail usage to “information overload” (p. 68), where such overload emerges not only from the information management aspects of receiving numerous e-mails (e.g., understanding, storing, and retrieving) but also from the new tasks, priorities, and interactions required by the contents of such messages.

In addition to the limitations identified by the authors (namely, the limited number of variables available to their secondary data analysis, lack of sensitivity to occupation and task, and inability to distinguish technological and non-technological environments), I had some concerns. On a stylistic level, I was not reassured by the typographical errors and poor grammar, and I found it unhelpful that the authors would occasionally refer to undefined constructs (e.g., “better working time,” p. 66) whose meaning I could not readily ascertain. On a more substantive note, I was not impressed with the paucity of current research. On a subject as novel and evolving as e-mail (in e.g., a Facebook era), it is certainly strange for an article published in 2010 to draw upon a number of works from the 1980s (not to mention 1958), or to refer to a 2003 study as “recently published” (p. 63).

In terms of overall structure, I was not sure how the authors’ three research questions translated into their four research hypotheses, nor was it entirely clear to me that they rigorously worked through each of those hypotheses. For example, while their interest in the well-being of managers is worth noting, their concluding focus on it gave the impression that they had gotten distracted. I also found that some of their conclusory editorializing did not follow from their research. Indeed, in their remarks that “at the end of the day, work is done by people, and it is due to their individual wellbeing that work performance improves,” I thought I detected a contradiction of their apparent sense that e-mail-related well-being and performance tend to operate at cross-purposes. Nor was I persuaded that stress and distress are “undesirable” outcomes of work performance (p. 63); stress seems to be a work performance motivator in many circumstances. Most egregiously, for purposes of the present review, I was not impressed with the authors’ summary statement that unspecified “researches [sic] have shown that information conveyed via e-mail nurtures negative aspects of communication” (p. 68). I had thought that they intended, themselves, to look into e-mail as a generator of misunderstandings. I did not expect to see that notion resurrected in the conclusion if it did not emerge profoundly from their own data.

Despite such concerns, it did appear that Mano and Mesch provided a solid review of relevant literature. For purposes of learning about conflict management, this literature review (which actually began in the article’s introduction) was more informative than their own empirical research. They cite various sources for several propositions: that e-mail imposes a degree of technical neutrality insofar as very different people are compelled to communicate in a basic lingua franca, for example; that other data sets (unlike the one they used) permit differentiations among kinds of e-mails (e.g., announcements, task information); and that e-mail has the potential for multiplying positive interactions among individuals, including many who might otherwise not even become aware of one another.

Generally, it is worth considering that what e-mail opens is not Pandora’s box but is, rather, the door to the future. That is, there is a pervasive assumption that the workplace dare not become entangled in personal issues. So the personal difficulties and interpersonal conflicts of normal life become an 800-pound gorilla that everyone tries to ignore. This worked to some extent in an industrial era, especially when mental focus was not an essential ingredient in job performance. It does not work nearly as well in mentally challenging positions. It would be possible, in theory, to treat e-mail as an identifier of issues to be resolved – as, in other words, an exposer of what was previously swept under the rug. It seems that a mentally healthy workplace might coexist well with a commitment to deep, long-term integration of its participants. In that case, when Mano and Mesch observe that “e-mail has been found to generate negative outcomes as well such as ‘politicing’ and ‘petty tyranny’” (p. 62) – as if e-mail were the cause of, rather than merely an outlet for, office bullying. The analysis would be more persuasive if one were to take account of the productivity of workplaces in which there is no awkwardness-inducing device (e.g., e-mail) by which people can intentionally or inadvertently highlight barriers to growth and improvement.