Analysing employee’s use of pronouns in their emails can offer great insights into their current mental state, power dynamics and sense of connection.
There are plenty of behavioural shifts that could signal an employee’s mental health is declining, including absenteeism, declining work quality and social withdrawal. But one thing you mightn’t have thought to monitor is a shift in their language.
Our choice of words has an important function in determining our relationships, status and sense of wellbeing, so managers should listen up and take note.
Figure out how staff are feeling (without asking them)
HRM has written about AI that collects data on what employees are saying in their emails and on their phone calls, but research suggests a better way to gauge employee sentiment is to instead focus on how they’re saying things.
A Canadian company, Receptiviti, has technology designed to cut through what employees are saying in their workplace communications (email, Slack, Yammer etc.) in order to assess their state of mind.
For example, it’s not so interested in the fact that Michelle and Sam are talking about their weekend plans, but is interested to see that Sam is using more personal pronouns (me, I) than Michelle. According to Receptiviti this could indicate that Sam isn’t feeling as happy as Michelle, as he’s focussing inwards and perhaps less able to relate to those around him.
In a Quartz article on the new technology, the author uses the example of expressing frustration in the workplace – something we all do from time to time. Someone like Sam might say “I am feeling very frustrated” versus Michelle who says, “This is very frustrating.”
The research on which this technology is based was conducted by language expert and social psychologist at the University of Texas James W. Pennebaker. He explains how this analysis works in his 2013 TEDx talk, ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’. He says certain people are more likely to use a high level of third person pronouns (they, she, he) than others.
“You have to think of pronouns, and all function words, as where people are paying attention,” he says. “If you’re using these third person pronouns, by definition you care about other people, you think about other people. And people who use these at high rates are much more socially engaged.”
An employee who might be less socially engaged than their peers could be more susceptible to disengagement from work, or even depression.
We know from other studies that people’s language shifts when going through a depressive episode. Other than obvious signs, such as the increased use of negative adverbs or adjectives, researchers Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi and Tom Johnstone write in their paper for Clinical Psychological Science (which refers to Pennebaker’s research) that increased use of personal pronouns is a common shift for depressed people.
In an article for The Conversation about this research, Al-Mosaiwi says, “This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.”
Interestingly, their research found the strongest indicator of an individual’s mental state (more telling than negative emotion words or personal pronoun use) was the increased use of ‘absolutist words’ – like ‘always’, ‘constant’, ‘definitely’ and ‘absolutely’.
Analysing the language used in various online mental health forums – and using non-mental health related forums as controls – they found that absolutist terms were used 50 per cent more often in anxiety or depression forums, and 80 per cent more often in suicidal ideation forums.
“Pronouns produced a similar distributional pattern as absolutist words across the forums, but the effect was smaller. By contrast, negative emotion words were paradoxically less prevalent in suicidal ideation forums than in anxiety and depression forums,” says Al-Mosaiwi.
This isn’t to say that alarm bells should be sounded if an employee sends you an email saying “I absolutely agree with you. I’m definitely going to give that some thought.” Leave that kind of analysis to the experts (or their technology). It is, however, a reminder for managers to take note if they feel an employee’s tone has drastically changed.
The connection between language and status
It’s natural to assume that influential people (the CEO or another leader in your organisation), are more likely to use more personal singular pronouns.
Pennebaker understands why some people might make this assumption – it makes sense there’s a connection between leaders and self-confidence and/or narcissism – but says that it’s wrong.
“The higher anyone is in status, the less they use ‘I’ words. The lower someone is in status, the more they use ‘I’ words,” he says.
He uses himself as a case study by analysing the data from his own emails. When looking at emails from his students, he noticed the heavy use of personal pronouns.
For example, a student might write: ‘I was just wondering if I could get an extension on my assignment.’ And as the professor, his response would be, ‘Thank you for your email. You may have an extension on your assignment.’
Interestingly, he noticed that his own language shifted when speaking with someone above him in seniority. If he was to email the Dean of the school, his language would include more personal pronouns, “Dear Dean, I’m professor Pennebker and I’d like to know if I can do this…”
“This is the language of power and status. It tells us where people are paying attention. A high status person is looking out at the world, the low status person tends to be looking more inwardly,” says Pennebaker.
Using language to connect
Of course, language doesn’t just reveal who we are it also brings us together. Pennebaker’s research has also looked into the way it can be used to strengthen connections between pairs at work by analysing the words they use with each other.
He and his team created a metric called ‘language style matching’. Pennebaker explains the basics: “The more that people’s function words are matching, the more they’re on the same page.”
(You can test this theory out yourself by using their online tool. All you need is an instant message or email from you and another person).
As HRM has previously reported, mirroring someone’s behaviour in the workplace is a strong form of flattery and can be beneficial in leaving a good impression (that’s not to say that it doesn’t come with its potential issues, as outlined in the article).
Pennebaker’s team tested their theory by analysing transcripts from speed dating events. By matching the similarity of the words used, Pennebaker says he’s able to predict the likelihood that people will go on an actual date “slightly better” than the people themselves.
He took this a step further by asking new couples to share ten days worth of their instant messages. Using this information, he and his team were able to accurately predict if the couple would be together three months down the track, better than they could themselves.
This research can be beneficial to a workplace. Instead of just looking at the connectivity between pairs, Pennebaker is able to look at small groups of five to six people to better understand productivity and cohesiveness in the workplace.
By tracking this group’s online communication, he says you could develop a bot-like pop-up that could warn staff that they’re not paying close enough attention to each other.
“Or, for the loud mouth in the group, it could say ‘John, for the last fifteen minutes you’ve said 50 per cent of the words. Why don’t you allow step back and allow others to talk’.”
But, like all workplace technology that collects people data, company-wide buy in and high trust levels would be imperative to see something like this working effectively. There are obvious privacy concerns as well. But if it was the right fit for your organisation, it could be a way to examine teams in a whole new light.
If you want to create effective communication channels in your business, the Ignition Training course, Communicating effectively, will help you to put the right strategies in place.