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Cc’ing the boss can ‘backfire’

20 April 2017

The article at a glance

“Cc’ing” supervisors to emails between co-workers erodes trust among office colleagues, finds study at Cambridge Judge Business School, outlined in Harvard Business …

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“Cc’ing” supervisors to emails between co-workers erodes trust among office colleagues, finds study at Cambridge Judge Business School, outlined in Harvard Business Review.

Copying, or “cc’ing” supervisors into emails between co-workers, even if done in good faith, erodes trust between office colleagues and fosters a broader organisational “culture of fear and low psychological safety,” according to a study at Cambridge Judge, as outlined today (20 April) in Harvard Business Review.

The study results on more than 900 office workers in the US, UK, China and the Netherlands “illustrate that electronic transparency can backfire” in organisations, and suggest that managers may need to proactively articulate policy on including superiors in office email communications.

David De Cremer
Professor David De Cremer

“The more often you include a supervisor on emails to co-workers, the less trusted those co-workers feel,” says the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge, who led a series of six studies on the cc effect in offices.

The HBR article is entitled “CC’ing the boss on email makes employees feel less trusted”.

The core finding on trust was based on a study of 594 working adults who were asked to respond to scenarios in which colleagues always, sometimes or almost never copied the supervisor when emailing them. Consistently, the situation in which the supervisor was “always” cc’ed in the email made the recipient “feel trusted significantly less”.

A further organisational survey of 345 employees found that when the supervisor is cc’ed a lot, employees not only felt less trusted “but this feeling also automatically led them to infer that the organisational culture must be low in trust overall, fostering a culture of fear and low psychological safety.”

Significantly, these results were found in both Western and Chinese samples of employees, suggesting that even in very different cultures copying in the boss is seen as potentially threatening.

Professor De Cremer says:

The implication of these findings is that companies and other organisations need to be aware that electronic transparency, no matter how well-intentioned, is not a ‘Holy Grail’ of efficiency or harmony. Too often, transparency is seen as an end in itself, but these studies show that including supervisors can make employees suspicious and prove counterproductive.

Professor De Cremer said the study results suggest that managers may need to set rules on when to include superiors in emails, and to actively intervene when individual employees go overboard in copying in higher-ups. Managers also should be aware that the spread of team collaboration software like MS Office 365 or Slack could also carry trust issues related to the study’s findings, though the expectation of privacy in using these tools is arguably lower than for emails.

In some cases, employees innocently cc supervisors in order to get a broader perspective, or when they simply don’t know the answer to a colleague’s emailed query – but the studies show that even such good-faith cc’ing fosters distrust from work colleagues.

The study found, however, that such well-meaning people “might be in the minority” – because study participants showed awareness that their emails always copying the supervisor would reduce the level of trust felt by the co-worker recipient.

The article says:

This finding suggests that when your co-workers copy your supervisor in high frequencies, they may be doing so strategically; as they consciously know what the effect will likely be on you. From that point of view, our finding that employees receiving emails with the supervisor always copied in reported feeling trusted less by their co-worker very well may carry some truth in it.

Watch an interview with Professor David De Cremer on his new research: