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Priscilla Rogers
  Priscilla Rogers

Finding the Appropriate Balance Between Politeness and Self-Assertion

9/14/2005 --

New hires must balance relational needs for politeness with organizational obligations requiring self-assertion when reporting bad news to the boss.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—New hires who must deliver bad news to the boss are often caught between a rock and a hard place.

Though it is customary to show respect and deference to those in senior positions, some cultural and workplace situations may require a certain degree of self-assertion. Tensions inevitably arise when subordinates try to maintain a sufficient degree of politeness while reporting to superiors on workplace tasks.

Researchers Priscilla Rogers of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and Song Mei Lee-Wong, formerly of the Nanyang Business School in Singapore, suggest conventional measures of politeness, such as deference, solidarity and non-imposition, are challenged by organizational obligations requiring confidence, direction and individuality.

Some new hires, they say, may be oblivious to the communicative complexity of the subordinate-to-superior reporting relationship, whereas others may feel inhibited by this relationship and experience difficulty in communicating unfavorable information to higher-ups. To be successful, new hires must find the appropriate balance between the two extremes, given the particular demands of their situation.

Expectations for reporting vary from boss to boss, group to group and organization to organization. Therefore, finding the right words to inform without offending can be difficult. It's not just a matter of being able to tell the boss he or she is wrong and doing so respectfully, but also knowing how the boss expects subordinates to approach him or her on such matters.

Rogers, U-M associate professor of business communication, and Lee-Wong developed a conceptual framework highlighting critical politeness issues for subordinate reporting in the global workplace by analyzing two large sets of reports produced by university students. One data set consisted of 965 responses from Asian and American undergraduate business students at the Ross School and Nanyang Business School who were asked to react to workplace scenarios involving critiquing a superior's work. The second set included actual e-mail reports and responses exchanged over seven weeks between six Michigan MBA project teams working abroad and their domestically based faculty supervisors. The two populations allowed Rogers and Lee-Wong to explore politeness concerns relevant to both novices (undergraduates) and individuals with workplace experience (MBAs).

From their analyses, the researchers identified three important dimensions of politeness specific to subordinate reporting—deference, non-imposition and solidarity. They discovered, however, that subordinates often encounter communicative dilemmas involving ostensibly opposing values. For example, a new hire's obligation to express findings with sufficient self-confidence and sense of direction may complicate his or her competing need to express deferential regard.

Rogers and Lee-Wong say that the competing values operating in their data involved relational needs on one hand and organizational obligations on the other. Deference was challenged by the need to display confidence in reporting. Non-imposition was opposed by the need for personal direction or expertise. Solidarity, the ability to work with others, was tempered by the sister need to work individually without superior hand-holding. This realization prompted the researchers to identify counterparts for each of the three politeness dimensions—deference was challenged by confidence, non-imposition by personal direction and solidarity by individuality.

"The juxtaposition of these six communicative dimensions in our framework illustrates tensions an individual may need to negotiate in order to carry on a polite discussion that fulfills both relational needs and organizational obligations," Rogers and Lee-Wong said. "Whether subordinate reports are interpreted as sufficiently polite and professional also depends on the nature of the subordinate-superior relationship and organizational expectations for reporting."

The researchers suggest that job candidates with advanced education, such as the students in their samples, are hired to contribute to an organization, not to capitulate.

"Contribution via reporting requires that subordinates negotiate the dynamic interplay between competing dimensions," Rogers and Lee-Wong said. "New hires must display an appropriate level of understanding of the reporting relationship and respect for their superiors while at the same time fulfilling organizational obligations for self-assertion."

The challenge to educators, they conclude, is to show soon-to-be new hires how various rhetorical, syntactical and linguistic choices may be mixed and matched to negotiate these competing dimensions in very different reporting situations.

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone:(734) 936-1015 or 647-1847