Don’t Take This the Wrong Way, But…

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It’s inevitable: social hierarchy is a defining feature of organizations, and individuals use subtle communication behaviors to assert themselves and advance within the ranks. Yet according to a new article published in Administrative Science Quarterly, they also express signals of deference—smiling, body language, hedging, verbal disclaimers, and so forth—to “convey an acceptance of one’s position in the hierarchy and assure others that there is no intent to mount a challenge to the order.”  The article explores these behaviors—and the finding that they are more pronounced when used among peers of similar rank, rather than with superiors—to determine how organizations affect the individuals within them:

Using archival data on a year of e-mail exchanges at a division of Enron (Study 1) and a field study of management professionals (Study 2), we explore how the relative hierarchical rank of a message sender and a message recipient affects expressions of verbal deference in organizational e-mail communication. Verbal deference refers to linguistic markers that convey a willingness to yield to another’s preferences or opinions as a sign of respect or reverence. Although prior research has focused on upward deference in an organizational hierarchy, from lower-ranked senders to higher-ranked recipients, we predict and find that the greatest amount of deference is expressed laterally, between peers of equal or similar rank. Further, lateral deference is most frequently displayed by those individuals most concerned with preserving their status and rank, confirming that lateral deference may be used as a status-saving strategy designed to protect individuals from status loss associated with ‘‘overstepping one’s place.’’

Read the article, “Appeasing Equals: Lateral Deference in Organizational Communication,” published by Alison R. Fragale of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; John J. Sumanth of the Edwin L. Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University; Larissa Z. Tiedens of the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University; and Gregory B. Northcraft of the Department of Business Administration, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, published on September 12, 2012 in ASQ.

Administrative Science Quarterly is a top-rank, quarterly, peer-reviewed journal that publishes the best theoretical and empirical papers on organizational studies. Follow this link to learn more and this one to receive e-alerts from ASQ.

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We are not quite out of the jungle yet are we? working in an office I see this kind of deferrable behaviour a lot amongst the interns that we bring in after they have finished university and are usually fairly inexperienced in the art of workplace politics!

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