You’ve probably heard the old proverb, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” But when it comes to workplace interactions and leadership behavior, could being polite versus being rude actually make someone a more effective manager? To find out, we decided to measure signals in digital communications like emails, instant messages and calendar meeting invites to see if we could find any correlation between manager performance and a subset of digital behaviors.

Digital communication makes up a significant portion of a manager’s interactions with their teams (We’ve written in the past about how important these channels are). The Cultivate platform can analyze these interactions and measure leadership behavior (you can learn more details about how we actually do that here). When we compare these behaviors to managers’ respective performance ratings, we can observe some interesting correlations.

Why is this important?

Some HR departments often need to make educated guesses about why some managers excel and others do not – for example, at a fast-paced company, it’s logical to assume that managers who are organized and respond quickly to requests could be more likely to thrive. But without objective, observational data to back this up, it could just be a guess. This is where measuring digital communications behavior could help provide some initial answers.

How did we do it, and what did we find?

First, I want to provide some background on the measurement process. Our team used machine learning models to analyze manager’s digital communications using natural language processing that measures linguistics signals like sentiment, tone and how often managers solicit feedback from their teams. We then compared these metrics with those manager’s performance ratings to see which types of digital behavior correlate to higher ratings.

In this initial assessment, there were three clear trends that emerged between certain digital behaviors and manager performance ratings:

  1. Expressing Agreement – Managers that agree with their teams on digital channels (for example, saying things like “I’m on board with this” or “I agree with XXX’s idea” in email and chat messages) were more likely to be aligned with high performers. This was especially strong among upper levels of management. Being excited, conveying positivity to your teams and showing agreement, even while giving feedback, could appear to help managers excel. Other research we’ve done supports this too; managers who display positivity and value other opinions got better responses from their teams in return.
  2. Requesting Feedback – Another behavior that could indicate a good manager is asking for feedback, both personal and soliciting new ideas (for example: “Does anyone have ideas for how XXX product could be improved?”). Effective managers are also open to receiving negative feedback (this Harvard Business Review article has more detailed information on how to navigate this). Asking for feedback correlates with high performance across all career level, but especially for mid-career managers.
  3. Politeness – This element appears to be universal. Manager that are more polite to their reports in digital conversations appear to have higher performance rating at all career levels. Out of these three behaviors, this one had the strongest correlation to higher performance and is also relatively easy for managers to put into practice. As the old saying goes being polite costs nothing!

It is worth noting that the role of specific digital behaviors in driving performance or engagement depends on company culture as well. Our data also has some limits. For example, we can’t prove causality as it pertains to these trends. Are managers well-liked because they are polite and disliked because they are impolite? Or are poor managers rude to their teams because of some unknown third variable affecting their relationship? Also, we should note that the data these findings are based on is aggregated and anonymized. We’re about empowering users, not reviewing their performance. Cultivate is completely opt-in.

Even with these caveats, it’s clear that polite managers who ask for feedback and express agreement tend to rise to the top. Being able to detect these behaviors (or a lack of them) before problems occur can help managers be more effective and boost their team’s overall productivity and engagement. That’s why we’re so excited about this kind of analysis at Cultivate – it empowers managers to become better leaders using concrete, actionable data to show them patterns in their behaviors they might be blind to.

Andy Horng, Co-founder
Andy Horng, Co-founder

As co-founder and Head of AI, Andy is building products to facilitate healthy, frictionless workplace relationships. He is inspired by the ideals of intelligent infrastructure: machine learning woven into our lives to help us synthesize information and overcome cognitive biases.

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