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E-mail Can Suppress Workplace Conflict

E-mail is being used to deal with power relations and personal animosities in the workplace by suppressing conflict, says Derek Wallace, lecturer in academic and professional writing and communications at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Wallace is studying e-mail as part of the Language in the Workplace Project run by the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.

He gives the example of an employee using e-mail to communicate with her manager so as "not to have to cope with the boss's body language".

"E-mail is allowing people to manage their hierarchical or personal relationships by giving them a way of avoiding the physical brunt of these relations, and therefore of tolerating them. From behind their screens they can communicate coolly over the top of their underlying tensions," he says.

According to Dr Wallace, this is not necessarily a bad thing. "It may enable the organisation's work to continue in the face of inevitable conflicts," he says.

But there can also be disadvantages.

"In the long term, e-mail may prevent the forging of the kind of sustainable relationships needed for dynamic interaction and innovation in the organisation. People may end up going through the motions if they become reliant on e-mail rather than always choosing appropriately from the full range of communicational resources available to them."

E-mail also achieves the suppression of conflict, Dr Wallace says, by increasing the opportunities for employees to have some communicational input, but at the same time often obscuring whether their superiors have taken any notice of this input.

"The ease of reply and the chatty tone often characteristic of e-mail can give people the sense of participating in the organisation's affairs but without necessarily giving them any more of a say in matters of importance. For example, it's relatively easy using e-mail for superiors to thank people collectively for their input without being held to account over whether or not they act on it."

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