Professional status and norm
violation in email collaboration
Carolyn M. Axtell
Management School, The University of Shefﬁeld, Shefﬁeld, UK
Karin S. Moser
Business School, London South Bank University, London, UK, and
Pﬁzer Inc. Global Financial Services, Dublin, Ireland
Purpose –Status is a central aspect of teamwork relationships and successful collaboration in teams, both
online and ofﬂine. Status group membership and status perception shape behavioural expectations and norm
perceptions of what is appropriate, but despite their importance have been neglected in previous research.
Status effects are of special interest in online collaboration, e.g. via email, where no immediate feedback or
non-verbal/paraverbal communication and direct observation is possible. The purpose of this study is to
address this gap in research.
Design/methodology/approach –An experimental scenario study with two different professional
status groups (lecturers and students) tested status effects on causal attributions, intergroup bias and
emotional and collaborative responses to perceived norm violations in emails.
Findings –Results overall showed three key ﬁndings: a “black-sheep-effect”with harsher negative
attributions for same status members, more aggression and less cooperation towards lower status senders
and stronger (negative) emotional reactions towards high status senders.
Originality/value –The ﬁndings are important for managing professional online communication because
negative personal attributions, strong emotions and aggressive behaviours can increase team conﬂict, lead to
mistakes and generally undermine performance.
Keywords Status, Causal attribution, Email communication, Emotional reactions, Inter-group bias,
Paper type Research paper
Although there are many other digital media available today with chat and texting
functions, e-mail is still one of the most common methods of workplace communication
(Derks and Bakker, 2010). While email is an established communication medium at work,
there is still ambiguity regarding its formality, and email communication norms are not
ﬁrmly set compared to letters (with their high degree of formality) and texting or instant
messaging which are recognised as having low formality. Email is inﬂuenced by those other
forms of communication but perceived as somehow “in between”which leaves much room
for different interpretations and expectations about norms of formality and appropriateness
(Byron and Baldbridge, 2007). There is still a lack of understanding regarding how the
speciﬁc properties of email as a medium interact with central organisational structures such
as status to impact on work attitudes and behaviours. In particular, the role of social norms
relating to professional status (which is one of the most fundamental ways of signalling
group membership at work) has been neglected in the past. This paper aims to address this
gap by examining the role of status and social norms in online interactions with an
Received 30 July2019
Revised 8 October2019
Accepted 8 October2019
Team Performance Management:
An International Journal
© Emerald Publishing Limited
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experimental scenario study. An experimental design allows systematic testing of the effect
of email formality for members of different status groups with a randomised between-
subjects design. In the following section of the paper, we review the relevant literature on
email communication, social norms and status groups that underpin our hypotheses.
Social norms and email communication
Social norms are expressions of shared values and beliefs by a group, organisation or
society at large that shape subsequent expectations of what is appropriate in a given
situation and inﬂuence both attitudes and behaviours (Bicchieri, 2006;Smith and Postmes,
2009). Email norms are not static and are inﬂuenced by the proliferation of newer
communication media such as instant messaging, texting and micro-blogging which can be
seen as aligning particularly with the values and expectations of the younger generation and
are considered to be less formal than other forms of communication (Colley et al.,2004;
Gilson et al.,2014). As a result of these other forms of communication a range of shortcuts
have developed such as number or letter substitutions for words (e.g. “2”instead of “to”or
“RU”instead of “are you”) and no sign-off or address (Kim et al.,2007). The appropriateness
of when to use different levels of formality is not clear across the different digital media,
including email, and has led to calls for a greater focus on contextual factors and a closer
look at who is involved in the social interaction (Ducheneaut and Watts, 2005;Stephens et al.,
Email, in common with other text based digital media, is a fairly lean medium with fewer
social cues available compared to face to face interactions, which means there is less
contextual and social information available to interpret the intentions of the sender (Sproull
and Kiesler, 1986). The lack of individuating cues about the sender can lead to more extreme
and inaccurate impressions when evaluating the message (Walther, 2007). Negative
impressions of others in a virtual environment have been shown to negatively affect
collaborative behaviours (Cramton, 2001;Stephens et al., 2009). Evaluation of others in
electronic communication is also inﬂuenced by social identity processes (Lea et al.,2001)as
speciﬁed in the SIDE model.
The social identity model of de-individuation effects (SIDE, Postmes et al.,1998) proposes
that visual anonymity induces a state of de-individuation in which group membership
becomes more salient. This situation induces greater social inﬂuence and adherence to
group norms (Postmes et al., 2001) where deviance from the expected norms of behaviour is
noticeable (Lea and Spears, 1992). Norm violations occur when an individual’s behaviour
falls outside of the range of behaviour that is considered appropriate for that particular
social context (Levine et al., 2000) and can result in negative emotional, cognitive and
behavioural reactions (Wilson, 2005). Depending on the perceived degree of violation and
harm, emotional reactions are likely to be triggered such as anger (Frijda, 1986;Roseman,
1984) and behaviour may extend from lack of cooperation with the perpetrator to more
aggressive or confrontational behaviours (Mackie et al., 2000). For instance, norm-
incongruent emails have been found to inﬂuence a superior’s willingness to comply with a
subordinate’s request in an email (Stephens et al.,2011). Although not examining norms,
Mackie et al. (2000) found that offensive actions by the out-group were linked to anger and
an impulse to confront or attack theout-group. Cognitive attributions relating to whether the
norm violation is judged to be caused by internal individual factors or external contextual
factors are also likely to be affected (Kelley, 1973). Given the poor contextual information
available in lean media like email, negative personal attributions about the sender (such as
laziness or incompetence) are more likely (Cramton, 2001;Cramton et al., 2007). Negative
personal attributions have been found to lead to counterproductive behaviours such as
increased conﬂict and coalition forming (Cramton, 2001) which has important implications
for organisational effectiveness and harmony. Thus, we expect that perceived email
formality norm violations will have a negative impact on emotional, cognitive and
behavioural responses as hypothesised:
H1. Perceived email norm violation is related to negative emotional and attributional
reactions towards the sender and less favourable collaborative intentions.
Status and group membership
The role of hierarchical status has been rather neglected in research on electronic
communication. However, reactions to email norm violations are likely to be inﬂuenced by
the hierarchical status as well as group membership of the sender and recipient. Indeed,
status is intrinsically related to norms that deﬁne in-groups and out-groups at work (Piazza
and Castellucci, 2014). Hierarchical status is used as a formal means of categorisation within
organisations and regulates group processes and behaviour at work by assigning duties,
rights, and responsibilities to different status groups (Cowen, 2012). Thus, hierarchical
status within organisations is related to the concept of power, which refers to the extent to
which someone is able to inﬂuence the behaviour of others in line with their own intentions
(French and Raven, 1959;Tiedens et al., 2000). A given status deﬁnes the structure in which
the use of power is acceptable within organisations, with those of higher status tending to
have greater power (Bunderson and Reagans, 2011;Sell et al., 2004).
Status has a strong inﬂuence on behaviour during interpersonal communication (Giles
et al.,1987;Gregory and Webster, 1996) and there may be different expectations of what is
appropriate depending on the status of the recipient and the sender (Tiedens et al.,2000). For
instance, Postmes et al. (2000) found that individuals tend to alter their email formality when
writing to higher status individuals. Moreover, superiors may expect more formal email
communication from subordinates and react negatively if expectations are not met
(Stephens et al.,2011). However, past research has not explored the reactions when the same
email behaviour is received by someone of the same or higher status, and yet this reaction
may be quite different and likely to affect collaborative relations across different levels
within an organisation in various ways.
Social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1986) can help to explain the different reactions
to norm violation when the sender and recipient belong to either the same or different
groups. For instance, individuals tend to overlook transgressions made by others who share
their social identity (Lea and Spears, 1992). Thus, in-group favouritism may be shown in
relation to email norm violations, so that reactions remain positive or neutral. Being part of
the in-group offers some protection against negative judgements. In contrast, email
violations by out-group members may be subject to more negative reactions (Postmes et al.,
2001) and the emotional and cognitive responses may be more severe and less forgiving for
those who do not share the same social identity. Thus, when people belong to the same
group we might expect to see in-group favouritism (a tendency to overlook norm violations
by in-group members) and out-group bias (a stronger negative reaction towards norm
violation by outgroup members).
However, hierarchical status is likely to moderate this effect such that those in a low
status out-group will be treated more harshly by those from a high status group. This is
because high status group members have a tendency to feel more comfortable when
communication patterns reﬂect the social order (Tiedens and Fragale, 2003). Moreover,
according to appraisal theories of emotion (Frijda, 1986;Roseman, 1984) those in a strong
position with resources are more likely to have an anger response to offensive behaviour
from others. Thus, high status recipients are less likely to tolerate communication norm
violations from low status individuals and more likely to see it as a lack of respect. Norm
violations in emails to high status recipients are thus likely to induce stronger negative
emotions, more negative internal attributions, and lower collaborative intentions towards low
status senders. In line with this, Stephens et al. (2009,2011) found that emails that did not
match lecturer formality expectations had a negative effect on their reactions. Their studies
examined reactions to email communication from students to lecturers, and also students’
opinions of emails sent to lecturers, and found more negative reactions from the lecturers.
However, they did not examine the opposite effect, where someone of lower status receives an
email from a higher status individual. Yet, it is important to examine the reactions to
communications from those of higher status because positive interactions with superiors has
a profound effect on perceptions of the organisation and the employee’s relationship with it
(Rhoades and Eisenberger, 2002). We therefore investigate the reactions of lower status
recipients as it has been neglected in previous research on email communications.
For low status recipients, we might expect less negative emotional and cognitive
(attributional) reactions towards senders of high status, and a stronger likelihood of
retaining collaboration intentions towards them. Those of low status may feel less power to
do anything about poor email communications from high status individuals and this may
create a tension between their immediate reaction and the options open to them for dealing
with it. Moreover, higher standards tend to be used to judge those who are considered to be
competent, such as lecturers (Biernat et al., 2010) and so it may be unexpected for someone of
high status within the organisation to act incompetently by violating norms. They may be
judged more leniently at ﬁrst, until more evidence is gathered (Biernat et al.,2010), but there
will likely be some confusion about the competence and intentions of the high status sender
until greater clarity is achieved. Such tensions and confusions create discomfort and
cognitive dissonance that need to be resolved (Stone and Cooper, 2001).
Dissonance is a drive state that arouses the need to reduce the discomfort and resolve the
inconsistency (Festinger, 1957) by changing ones’cognitions (Leippe and Eisenstadt, 1999)
or interpreting the event differently (Simon et al.,1995). To reduce the cognitive dissonance,
lower status individuals may therefore actively choose to dampen the reaction they have or
interpret the event in a more favourable light; in effect giving the high status sender the
“beneﬁt of the doubt”. Thus, reactions from those of lower status towards higher status
senders might be more generous and more similar to their own favourable in-group
evaluations. We would therefore expect to see a weaker relationship between norm
violations and reactions if inappropriate emails are sent from someone of higher status to a
lower status recipient. Hence, we expect the status of the sender and recipient to complicate
the relationship between norm violations and outcomes, in such a way that there will be
harsher reactions towards lower status senders by high status recipients and a more
forgiving reaction towards high status senders from low status recipients:
H2. The relationship between norm violation perception and reactions will be
moderated by the status of the sender and recipient. Speciﬁcally, we expect there
will be a stronger relationship between norm violation and reactions (with more
negative reactions experienced) when the sender is low status and the recipient is
high status. In contrast, the relationship between norm violation and reactions will
be weaker (and similar to more favourable in-group reactions) when the sender is
high status and recipient low status.
We test these hypotheses within a higher education institution as this is a context where
there are clear status demarcations between lecturers (high status) and students (low status).
A balanced design is used where participants either “receive”the email from someone of the
same or different status. We also consider the inﬂuence of proﬁciency with relevant
communications technologies (email and text-messaging) as greater familiarity with these
are likely to affect email formality norm expectations (Extejt, 1998). Age and ethnicity may
also impact on results in terms of perceptions and reactions as younger people tend to have a
greater tendency to use less formal communications like text messaging (Stephens et al.,
2009) and those in low power distance cultures (such as the UK) may be less deferential to
those of higher status (Loh et al.,2010).
Negative emotions are generally more of a concern at work than positive ones as they
might lead to conﬂicts. Anger is thus an important emotional reaction to include in this
study on norm violation and what might be perceived as offensive behaviour (Kam and
Bond, 2009). To enable testing for differential effects we have also included the positive
emotion of happiness as being treated with unexpected informality might invoke a positive
emotional response. Negative personal attributions tend to increase in virtual environments
where little is known about the situation of the sender (Cramton, 2001). Such cognitions can
be very damaging to work relations which is why this study focuses on personal
attributions, both negative (laziness) and positive (competence). For the behavioural
intentions, the focus is on compliance with the email request as a positive, collaborative
response as well as a negative and potentially conﬂictual intention to confront the sender.
Design and participants
A 2 (recipient status) 2 (sender status) fully balanced experimental between-subjects
design was used in which members of actual professional status groups (students vs
lecturers) either received an email from an in-group member (same status) or an out-group
member (different status). Two online surveys (one with student as sender and one with
lecturer as sender) were developed and lecturer and student participants were randomly
allocated to one of the conditions. Participants (177 students and 53 lecturers) were from a
British University. The age range of the student sample was from 18 to 76 with a mean age
of 26 (SD = 9.37), 69.5 per cent were female and 82 per cent were of white British ethnicity.
The lecturer sample’s age ranged from 26 to 68 with a mean age of 43 (SD = 11.33); 75
per cent were female, and 100 per cent were white British.
The survey asked the participant to consider an email vignette in which the sender was
requesting a meeting with the recipient to discuss some research. Students can conduct
research projects during their studies and some might approach potential supervisors to
discuss their ideas. Lecturers might also offer research opportunities. The instructions just
before the vignette speciﬁed the status of the sender (either a lecturer or a student).
Otherwise, the email vignette in each condition was exactly the same as detailed below:
How r u? I’m getting involved in a project you might be interested in.
I would really like to discuss it if you are around this week. Free 2 meet tomorrow?
The vignette contained a number of grammatical errors and formality norm violations
including the address (“Hi”–with no name), texting short cut (“ru”instead of “are you”), a
spelling error (disscus), number substitution (“2”instead of “to”), incomplete sentence and an
informal sign off (“Cheers”). After reading the email, the participants were asked to rate their
reactions to the email on a range of measures as described below.
Perceived norm violation. Participants rated the email on its formality, address, shortcuts,
length, language, content, spelling, sign off and other aspects on a seven-point scale from
“completely unacceptable”to “completely acceptable”. Responses were reverse scored and
summed so that a high score represented high norm violation perception. Internal
consistency of the scale was good (
Emotions. Participants were asked how the email vignette had made them feel using
both a negative and positive measure of emotion. Anger (consisting of three items –angered,
outraged, annoyed) and Happiness (consisting of four items –happy, delighted, pleased,
amused), were measured using an adapted version of the measure used by Gordijn et al.
(2006). Responses were given on seven-point scales from “absolutely not”to “absolutely”.
Internal consistency was good (Anger:
= 0.82; Happiness:
Attributions. An adaptation of a measure used by Lea and Spears (1992) was used to
determine the attributions participants made about the sender of the email. Participants
were asked to rate the sender on two attributional items: a negative personal attribution
“laziness”and a positive personal attribution “competence”.Responses were given on a
seven-point scale from “none”to “a great deal (much more than some people)”.
Collaborative intentions. A positive (compliance) and negative (confrontation)
collaborative intention were measured. Compliance was measured using items that Stephens
et al. (2009) used [which is adapted from that used by Mottet et al. (2004)] and indicated
participants’willingness to comply with the sender’s request in the email (“right now”) and
similar requests by them in the future (“in future”). Responses were given on a seven-point
scale from “very unwilling”to “very willing”, achieving internal consistency of
Confrontation tendency was measured using a scale from Mackie et al. (2000) measure of
action tendencies. The measure consisted of three items: “confront”,“oppose”and “argue
with”the sender. Responses were given on a seven-point scale from “not at all”to “very
much”. Internal consistency of the measure was good (
Status. Status was coded as 1 lecturer/0 student.
Demographic/control measures. Control measures included age, gender (0 = Male, 1 =
Female), and ethnicity (0 = White British; 1= Other). Familiarity with electronic text-based
forms of communications was measured by asking respondents the frequency with which
they used email and text messaging on a seven-point scale from “never”to “very
frequently –several times a day”. These were used as single items in the analysis.
As can be seen from Table I, a clear norm violation was perceived by most respondents
(M=4.4,SD =1.4). In line with H1 norm violation perceptions were positively correlated
with negative outcomes: Anger (r= 0.46; p= 0.001); laziness (r= 0.19; p= 0.006); and
confrontation (r= 0.25; p= 0.001), and negatively correlated with happiness (r=0.53; p=
0.001); competence (r=0.21; p= 0.002); and compliance (r=0.59; p= 0.001). The status
of the recipient was also related to outcomes. High status recipients tended to perceive a
stronger norm violation (r= 0.14; p= 0.046) and responded with more anger (r= 0.17; p=
0.010) and less happiness (r=0.14, p= 0.040) than low status recipients. Higher status
Study variables M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Age 30 12 –
Gender 0.7 0.46 0.04 –
Ethnicity 0.1 0.34 0.09 0.03 –
Email frequency 5.6 0.69 0.33** 0.04 0.02 –
Texting freq 5.2 1.1 0.43** 0.20** 0.03 0.07 –
Status sender 0.4 0.49 0.07 0.09 0.11 0.08 0.01 –
Status recipient 0.2 0.42 0.58*** 0.06 0.22** 0.31*** 0.26*** 0.06 –
Norm violation 4.4 1.4 0.01 0.02 0.24*** 0.05 0.04 0.00 0.14* –
Happiness 3.1 1.3 0.06 0.02 0.11 0.02 0.10 0.28*** 0.14* 0.53*** –
Anger 2.9 1.5 0.01 0.04 0.22 0.06 0.07 0.06 0.17* 0.46*** 0.17* –
Competence 3.3 1.3 0.07 0.04 0.02 0.03 0.03 0.00 0.08 0.21** 0.13* 0.03 –
Laziness 4.6 1.6 0.03 0.06 0.07 0.00 0.09 0.07 0.04 0.19** 0.05 0.17* 0.19** –
Compliance 3.6 1.8 0.06 0.05 0.17* 0.04 0.05 0.23** 0.05 0.59*** 0.53*** 0.35*** 0.14* 0.23*** –
Confrontation 2.1 1.3 0.04 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.01 0.01 0.10 0.25*** 0.06 0.41*** 0.04 0.04 0.14*
Notes: *p<0.05; **p<0.01; ***p<0.001
Correlations of study
senders also received happier (r= 0.28, p= 0.000) and more compliant responses (r= 0.23;
p= 0.001). Unsurprisingly, age correlated with status of the recipient, with those of higher
status tending to be older (r= 0.58; p= 0.000).
To examine H2; whether sender and recipient status had an inﬂuence on the relationship
between norm violation perception and attributions, emotional and behavioural reactions,
three-way interactions were tested using regression analysis. Following Dawson (2014) the
independent variables and controls were centred and the three-way interaction term
calculated by multiplying norm violation, sender status and recipient status together. To
test the three-way interaction, the individual predictors and two-way interactions between
each pair of predictors also needed to be controlled for. Age, gender, ethnicity, and email and
texting frequency were controlled for (see Table II for a summary of analyses).
Signiﬁcant three-way interactions were found for the attributions (see Figure 1). For the
laziness attribution interaction (
= 0.29; R
=0.13,F(12,206) = 2.59,p= 0.011) we found
Controls and IVs
Attributions Emotions Collaborative intentions
Laziness Competence Anger Happiness Confrontation Compliance
Ethnicity 0.046 0.003 0.064 0.012 0.095 0.080
Age 0.064 0.024 0.160 0.028 0.158 0.112
Gender 0.081 0.008 0.051 0.035 0.043 0.031
Email frequency 0.026 0.120 0.077 0.011 0.001 0.008
Text frequency 0.106 0.032 0.067 0.076 0.001 0.016
Status –sender 0.016 0.115 0.162* 0.269*** 0.149* 0.241***
Status –recipient 0.145 0.029 0.384*** 0.060 0.460*** 0.145
Norm violation 0.323*** 0.417** 0.265*** 0.373*** 0.179 0.561***
Send*Recip 0.077 0.035 0.273** 0.011 0.414*** 0.058
Viol*Recip 0.032 0.185 0.012 0.053 0.024 0.001
Viol*Send 0.298 0.302 0.201* 0.181* 0.098 0.003
Viol*Send*Recip 0.294* 0.307*** –– –0.086
0.131 0.113 0.300*** 0.390*** 0.161*** 0.407
0.081 0.061 0.262 0.358 0.117 0.372
Notes: *p<0.05; **p<0.01; ***p<0.001; Send = Sender; Recip = Recipient; Viol = Norm Violation, NB:
Regressions for anger, happiness and confrontation were re-run excluding the three-way interaction to
allow the two-way interactions to be interpreted
recipient status 2
(1) High Sender
(2) High Sender
(3) Low Sender
(4) Low Sender
(1) High Sender
(2) High Sender
(3) Low Sender
(4) Low Sender
that recipients in both high and low status groups were harsher towards their own in-group
when norm violation was perceived (see Figure 1- Slopes 1 and 4 on ﬁrst graph). Perceived
norm violation was related to higher laziness perceptions except when the sender was of a
higher status than the recipient was. Indeed, slope differences [using Dawson and Richter’s
(2006) test] were found between Slope 2 (the high sender/low recipient status slope) and all
other slopes (Slope 1: t= 3.609, p= 0.000; Slope 3: t=2.165, p= 0.032; and Slope 4: t=3.373;
p= 0.001) indicating a signiﬁcant difference in laziness attributions when the sender is of
higher status than the recipient. Thus, although there was a signiﬁcant three-way interaction
(as expected in H2) it was not exactly of the form expected, as the high status group did not
demonstrate the severest reaction towards low status senders. However, consistent with H2
leniency was applied from low status recipients towards high status senders.
A similar effect was seen for the attribution of competence, where the three-way
interaction was also signiﬁcant (
= 0.11, F(12,204) = 2.17,p= 0.007). The
second graph in Figure 1 illustrates that although competence attributions were similar
irrespective of the level of norm violation for the outgroup pairings (Slopes 2 and 3), there
was a stronger negative reaction within in-groups when high norm violation is perceived
(Slopes 1 and 4). Slope differences were signiﬁcant between Slope 2 (high status sender/low
status recipient) and two other slopes: 4 (low status sender and recipient; t= 3.33, p= 0.001)
and 1 (high status sender and recipient; t=2.16, p= 0.032). However, again we did not see
the harsher reaction towards low status senders from high status recipients predicted in H2.
Signiﬁcant three-way interactions were not found for anger (
=0.08;SE = 0.36;p= 0.41),
= 0.13; SE =0.29,p= 0.18), confrontation (
=0.11; SE =0.35;p= 0.30) or
=0.09; SE =0.41,p= 0.35). However, signiﬁcant two-way interactions were
found for all these outcomes except compliance. Thus, the analysis was re-run excluding the
three-way interaction for these reactions so that the two-way interactions could be interpreted.
Signiﬁcant two-way interactions between sender and recipient status for both anger
=0.27, SE= 0.43,p= 0.003) and confrontation (
=0.41, SE = 0.42, p= 0.000)
conﬁrmed the importance of status (albeit independent of norm violation perception). For
instance, anger was shown towards low status senders while there was almost no difference
in anger reactions from either students or lecturers towards high status senders (Figure 2).
status and/or norm
Low Sender Status High Sender Status
Low Sender Status High Sender Status
Low Violation High Violation
Low Violation High Violation
An in-group protective bias was demonstrated within the low status group (with the lowest
levels of anger shown towards low status senders by low status recipients –simple slope t=
2.38, p= 0.02) whereas high status recipients felt more anger towards the low status group
(simple slope t=2.09, p= 0.04). This demonstrates in-group favouritism and out-group
bias for the emotion of anger but with a differential effect of status consistent with H2 where
an out-group bias was only observed from high status recipients towards low status
The form of the two-way interaction for confrontation intention was very similar to that
for anger. Figure 2 illustrates that there was a greater tendency amongst the high status
recipients towards confronting the low status senders (simple slope t=3.62, p= 0.00) and
there was in-group favouritism/protection within the low status group, with low status
recipients less likely to confront their own group (simple slope t= 2.00, p= 0.05). The
predicted effect of status in H2 was therefore supported to some degree, although the level of
perceived norm violation does not inﬂuence this relationship as expected.
Signiﬁcant two-way interactions between norm violation and sender status were also
found for happiness and anger (
=0.18, SE = 0.11,p= 0.02;
= 0.20, SE = 0.13,p= 0.01
respectively). The form of the interaction for happiness indicated that happiness was higher
in general when low norm violation was perceived, and happiness was at its highest
towards high status senders when norm violation was low (simple slope t=7.21, p= 0.00).
This may indicate greater pleasure experienced when a high status sender treats a recipient
with such informality and familiarity. However, when norm violation is perceived, similarly
low levels of happiness are experienced towards senders of either status. The interaction for
anger was slightly different such that low anger is felt towards all senders when norm
violation is low but when norm violation is high, more anger is shown towards higher status
senders (simple slope t= 5.95, p= 0.00) perhaps because higher standards are used to judge
higher status senders so there is a more intense reaction to their norm violation.
The current study contributes to an important gap in research on how status and social
norms inﬂuence communication and collaboration over email. Understanding how the
expectations and norms across different hierarchical levels and professional group
memberships relate to reactions and responsiveness to email communications is immensely
important as miscommunications and conﬂicts can be very costly. Our ﬁndings indicate that
the status of the recipient and sender does make a difference to how email communication
norm violations are attributed, with harsher reactions occurring within in-groups and more
lenient attributions towards high status senders from low status recipients. When it comes
to negative emotional and behavioural intentions (anger and confrontation), however, the
low status senders receive harsher evaluations from high status recipients irrespective of the
level of norm violation. In contrast, we ﬁnd that the emotional reaction towards high status
senders does depend on the level of norm violation perceived (with a more extreme anger
response if high violation is perceived and a more extreme happiness response when low
violation is perceived). Thus, the relationship between norm violation and these outcomes is
complicated by the inclusion of status in ways that were not entirely predicted.
The predicted harsher reaction from high status recipients towards lower status senders
is not seen across the board. Where this pattern is observed, norm violation perception has
little to do with it, and so this may represent a general response to email communications
from high status recipients towards low status senders (e.g. perhaps they tend to feel
annoyed and confrontational towards email requests in general from lower status senders).
Moreover, a novel ﬁnding is that in-group favouritism is only found amongst the low status
group (for the negative reactions of anger and confrontation) and only if norm violation
perception is not involved. Again, this may represent a more generalised protective response
within a group that has less power against such aggressive reactions. Thus, the status
effects that were predicted do not depend on level of norm violation but rather only occur in
the context of aggressive and confrontational inter-status responses. This has implications
for theory in this area, as certain responses seem to be more generalised across different
levels of status and occur independent of any norm violation.
Somewhat surprisingly, when it comes to causal attributions regarding email norm
violation, the harshest reactions are towards the in-group at both levels of status, reminiscent of
a“black sheep effect”(Marques et al., 1988). A black sheep effect can occur when deviation
from socially acceptable norms reﬂects poorly on the in-group, threatening their positive
identity (Marques et al., 2001) and results in the deviant in-group members being derogated.
Such effects usually occur when the norm is considered very important and is strongly held
(Frings et al., 2010) which suggests that email norms of the sort investigated here are more
developed and more strongly held than originally assumed. It may also be that these email
norms, and the personal attributions they stimulate when violated, are important in relation to
impression management within organisations, and both high and low status individuals wish
to protect their image and not appear lazy or incompetent. Certainly, research suggests that
positive-controllable attributions are important for developing positive impressions (Silvester
et al., 2002). Especially those of high status appear to derogate in-group members that
jeopardise their image and status, which may be an attempt to reduce dissonance created by
negative personal attributions towards their own group.
In contrast, high status senders appear to be treated quite leniently by the low status
recipients when it comes to laziness attributions, with high status offering some protection
against negative attributions when email norm violation is perceived. This reaction may
also represent an attempt at cognitive dissonance reduction in a situation where such norm
violation would be unexpected and where there is little power to act against the sender.
Thus, the recipient either attempts to trivialise their interpretation of the violation itself (i.e.
see it as less important) or they modify their reaction to the violation. This effect may be
heightened within an online environment where there is less information and certainty
about the intention of the sender (especially from a different group) but relatively more
information available about ones’own “in-group”. As a result, high status senders may be
given the “beneﬁt of the doubt”until more evidence is available to make a more certain
attribution (Biernat et al.,2010). These effects are consistent with dissonance reduction
strategies identiﬁed in previous research (Leippe and Eisenstadt, 1999;Simon et al.,1995).
On the other hand, from an emotional perspective, high status senders are subject to
more extreme reactions dependent on the level of norm violation. Greater happiness is
observed when receiving the email from high status senders, but only when low norm
violation is perceived. This might indicate amusement at receiving such an email from a
lecturer, or greater delight at being treated with such familiarity by someone of high status.
However, if norm violation is perceived, then greater anger is expressed towards high status
senders, which may indicate greater hurt and perceived harm from this treatment,
consistent with predictions from appraisal theories of emotion (Frijda, 1986;Roseman, 1984).
Despite the different cognitive and emotional responses to norm violation, the
collaborative intention to comply was only inﬂuenced by the status of the sender.
Irrespective of the status of the recipient or the level of norm violation perceived, greater
compliance intentions were expressed towards those of higher status. Those of higher
hierarchical status have greater power (Sell et al.,2004) and although their actions may
cause harm, there may be little choice other than to complywith their request.
Thus, overall the ﬁndings suggest that hierarchical status matters when considering reactions
to emails within organisations, also sometimes independently of perceived norm violation.
However, there is not a “one-size-ﬁts-all”effect of status and the impact depends on the reaction
being investigated. Theories that predict social identity effects within online communications
(such as SIDE; Postmes et al., 1998), emotional responses to harm (such as appraisal theories of
emotion; Frijda, 1986;Roseman, 1984) and attributions (Kelley, 1973) need to take hierarchical
status into account and their complex inter-play need to be considered within reactions to email
communication. These ﬁndings are important, as communications from those of higher status
(and even same status) can strongly affect the perceptions and experiences of employees
(Rhoades and Eisenberger, 2002) and there is the danger of negatively impacting the collaborative
environment within the organisation, especially for members of lower status groups.
Of course, these ﬁndings need to be interpreted in light of the study’s limitations. The sample
size is relatively small thus reducing the statisticalpower,butdespitethiswewereabletoﬁnd
important differences and interaction effects, which suggests that these effects are quite strong.
Another limitation is that this study occurred only within one organisational context. Whilst the
participants were real group member participants from an organisational context in which there
are clear demarcations between the low and high status groups (students and lecturers), this sort
of distinction may be less evident in organisations where hierarchical positions are subject to
change and are more ambiguous. Future studies might therefore seek to expand the types of
organisations and also examine different communications media to determine if similar effects
occur. Moreover, whilst we focused on the most likely emotional, cognitive and behavioural
responses to email norm violations, it could be that other emotions, attributions and behavioural
intentions also play a role. For instance, other emotions such as embarrassment or shame might
also be inﬂuential particularly in relation to the black sheep effect and in an intercultural context
where “face-saving”might be important, so could be investigated in future studies.
Despite these limitations, the current study contributes to the literature by
demonstrating the complex role that status can have on different reactions to email
formality norm violations. The ﬁndings are important for practice because they suggest that
reactions to online communications can affect the collaborative environment and that this
may be particularly pronounced within organisations where there are collaborations
between people from different hierarchical levels (which is most organisations). Such issues
may be especially important for impression management for those of lower status wishing
to collaborate with those of higher status, but also those of high status who have an interest
in preserving their reputation. Moreover, within the current study the formality norm
violations might be consideredfairly mild and are of such a degree that the sender might not
even realise they had made any error, and yet the reactions are fairly strong. Having agreed
and shared expectations of email behaviour across different status levels and subgroups
might therefore be especially important in organisations. Thus, overall the ﬁndings in this
study offer some intriguing insights and raises further questions that can form the impetus
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About the authors
Carolyn M. Axtell is a Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology at Sheﬃeld University Management School. Her
research interests are related to the impact of new technologies and new ways of working on employees.
Karin S. Moser is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour and the Director of Research at the
Business School, London South Bank University. Her research focuses on cooperation and knowledge
sharing in social dilemmas, motivation for prosocial behaviour at work and the inﬂuence of digital
technologies, cultural background and social norms on collaboration. Karin S. Moser is the
corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
Janet McGoldrick is a past student of the University of Sheﬃeld, where she completed her MSc in
Work Psychology. She currently works for Pﬁzer Inc. Global Financial Services in Dublin, Ireland.
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