This simple email mistake could make everyone in your office hate you

Email mistake
Your innocent CC’ing might be seen as a threatening move. Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

You might want to think twice the next time you’re considering looping your boss in on an email chain — according to studies by David De Cremer, a professor of management studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, this simple choice can actually harm your relationships with your colleagues.

De Cremer wrote about the results of his studies in the Harvard Business Review, and, although the findings are preliminary and the academic paper is still under review, the findings were pretty interesting.

He performed six studies — experiments and surveys — to see the impact CC’ing others into an email had on trust.

The first thing that was clear was that the more often you include a supervisor on an email to coworkers, the less trusting they feel of you.

594 working adults took part in the experimental study. They read a scenario where their coworkers always, sometimes or almost never copied supervisors in when emailing them, and then assess how trusted they would feel in each situation. The consistent feeling was that having a supervisor “always” copied in made them feel significantly less trusted.

“This feeling automatically led them to infer that the organizational culture must be low in trust overall, fostering a culture of fear and low psychological safety,” De Cremer said.

To give some context, if you were asking a colleague about something, and they answered your email with your manager copied in, would you think they did it on purpose? You might not think twice about it, or you might see it as your colleague trying to undermine you. By copying in a supervisor, they could be suggesting to them you can’t do your job without asking for help. If this happens a lot, you might start believing your colleague is trying to sabotage you.

The studies were performed on both Western and Chinese employees, and the results were fairly consistent. De Cremer said this showed that even in very different cultures, copying in supervisors can be a move that could be seen as threatening.

Of course, sometimes you include a superior into an email thread because you want confirmation that you’re doing the right thing. You might not mean it to come across as a power play, but it can be misconstrued as such.

However, De Cremer found that these well-meaning mistakes are rare. When employees imagined sending emails where a supervisor was looped in, they usually knew the recipient would probably be offended by it. The level of mistrust they thought would occur was higher when the supervisor was always copied in than when it happened occasionally or never.

This suggests that if a coworker is copying in your boss very often, they’re probably doing it strategically.

In which case, when employees say they’re feeling less trusted, there’s probably good reason.

CC’ing can sometimes be done under the assumption that it creates “transparency” in the workplace. However, having transparency as a goal probably isn’t the “Holy Grail” that organisations think it is, De Cremer says. This is because companies get hung up on making transparent information exchanges the goal, without considering the repercussions.

“Such a perception makes employees suspicious that what they say or do can be used against them, especially when supervisors and higher authorities are included,” De Cremer writes.

He recommends that if supervisors want to minimise the chance of distrust forming between their employees, then they can be explicit about at what stages they should and shouldn’t be included in an email conversation.

So next time you’re thinking of including your manager in on a private email exchange, have a think about why you’re really doing it. Before you do anything, ask your colleague whether you should get some advice from higher up. This way they won’t think you’re up to something.

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