Business Communication Courtesy Is A Waste Of Time

thankyouEvery week, one of my colleagues sends me an extract of social network activity data for me to analyse. Every week, I reply saying “thank you”; it’s just common courtesy. But each time I do it, I feel a little guilty for wasting a few moments of his time. I’m sure he already receives far too many messages, and I’m just adding to his information overload. He knows I’m grateful, because I say thank you every week. So why do I carry on doing it?

Similarly, when someone in the sales team closes a big deal, they often write a blog post about it on our company internal social network, and receive a long series of “congratulations” comments.

Rule 9 of the Email Charter encourages us to “Cut Contentless Responses”

You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

It is tempting to classify all these thank yous and congratulations as “contentless responses” and draw the conclusion that courtesy is just a waste of the sender’s and recipient’s time. But is it? These responses may not have any “information value”, but they do have “social value”; everyone likes to feel appreciated, and that can translate to real business value by making the recipient feel better motivated.

But do we have “information value” and “social value” in the correct balance? Is your inbox full of messages that courtesy required, but you really didn’t need to see? And is there a more efficient way of maintaining social niceties without further burdening our inboxes?

One solution to this is using a content rating system, where readers of the content provide feedback about how useful the information was to them. Instead of creating another message for the author to read, the reader expresses gratitude via a Facebook-esque “like” or (preferably) something rather more sophisticated. This is an obvious area in which enterprise social networks are better than email. There is no way of indicating to the sender of an email that their message was valuable to you, or assessing whether others found it useful. But an enterprise social network typically allows every contribution to be rated in some way, and these ratings summarised to highlight the most popular or valuable content.

However, such feedback systems are also subject to the conventions of courtesy, or perhaps more accurately, the fear of causing offence.  The world of consumer social networking provides several examples of this. I recently read an article about a guy who bought an apartment solely to rent out on Airbnb. One of his conclusions was:

I don’t ever leave guests bad reviews in case they retaliate and leave me a bad review in turn. I don’t know how Airbnb can fix this, but the current review system is definitely broken.

Of course, this is nothing new – eBay suffered from precisely the same problem for years before they tightened their feedback process. And LinkedIn’s endorsement feature still seems to be overrun with entirely inaccurate endorsements, perhaps given in the hope of receiving something similar in return.

So for content feedback systems to be successful, they need a little more honesty and a little less courtesy than we typically see in business communication. My company’s enterprise social network, Clearvale, solicits feedback on content through a simple question, “was this helpful?” Yet people still (perhaps deliberately) misinterpret this question – on several occasions I have heard the justification that “it wasn’t helpful to me, but I’m sure it would be helpful to someone else, otherwise the author wouldn’t have posted it, so I voted ‘yes’”. However community-spirited and courteous this attitude is, it really doesn’t help. We should aim to use content feedback to work out which content is likely to be helpful to other people within the company. So if 10 people in the marketing department indicate something was useful, it would be reason to assume that other people in marketing might also find it useful. But if the finance department then votes something as useful based on the “wasn’t useful to me, but might be for others” approach, this sort of analysis becomes very difficult.

But still, like Airbnb and eBay users, employees are often reluctant to leave anything that can be perceived as negative feedback. In one month on our social network, there were 13638 “yes” answers to “was this helpful?” and only 262 “no” answers. The vast majority of network members never voted “no”.  This is why many organisations prefer simpler “like” mechanisms for rating content, but this really doesn’t solve the problem. It just leaves the author unable to tell the difference between a reader deliberately not “liking” because they didn’t find it useful and forgetting to express an opinion at all.

There are some curious cultural differences at work here. Everyone recognises the stereotype of the over-polite British diner in a restaurant complaining constantly to their friends about their meal, but when asked by the waiter if everything is OK, they’ll say “yes, great, thank you!” But in business communication, the British (and the rest of Europe) tend to be much more forthright in their criticisms than Americans or Asians. There are probably all sorts of factors in this, not least the relatively strong laws in Europe protecting employee rights. Without going into all of that, it’s important to recognise that different parts of a global organisation are likely to respond to a feedback system differently. When presented with a scale of 1-5 to rate something, it will be relatively rare for a British voter to give a 1 or 5 score, whereas an American typically has no such reservations.

An even bigger problem is people avoiding the issue by not using the content feedback system at all. During or after elections, it is often said that if you don’t vote, then you have no right to complain about the government that was elected. The same is true with business communication – don’t complain if you’re receiving irrelevant information if you didn’t provide honest feedback that accurately reflects how valuable content was to you.

Content feedback can go a long way to improving the efficiency of business communication by cutting out “contentless responses”. It gives the author a clear indication of how valuable their contribution is considered, without adding extra burden to their overflowing inbox. But to be successful, feedback systems need widespread participation, a little more honesty, and a little less courtesy.

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