How to be boss in instant-messaging

Virtual communication is a routine part of modern leadership and yet business organisations have limited understanding of emerging communication tactics actually used by leaders in a digital context and their impact.
In essence, is online communication transforming professional interactions and do the traditional rules of professional communication still apply?

More specifically, is advice to “avoid unnecessary chit chat”, “avoid jargon, slang and abbreviation” and employ “proper grammar, spelling and proofreading” on Instant Messaging (IM) (Guffey & Loewy, 2010) helpful? More importantly, is this advice realistic?

Research conducted by Dr Erika Darics (Aston University, UK) aims to shed light on how exactly people “do leadership” in digital, text-based environments. By applying micro-level analysis to naturally occurring IM conversations, Darics’ explored the strategies leaders employ to achieve a range of complex communication goals: to “get the work done” while fostering informality and collegiality, and creating the sense of  real—and not virtual—collaboration between team members.

This fascinating research helps leaders to better understand and deploy linguistic tactics in virtual work environments so as to enhance online work communication and leaders’ ability to lead others.


The aim of the research was to identify the nature and role of nonverbal computer-mediated-cues in enabling the achievement of management goals. By doing so, the research sought to cultivate a better understanding of real-life communication practices and, in particular, the subtle tactics that facilitate leadership communication but which are overlooked in business communication textbooks or training.


The research analysed excerpts from IM conversations collected in a virtual team working for a global consultancy in London. The excerpts were selected strategically to represent a variety of colleagues in interactions where there was a difference of at least two levels in the organisational hierarchy.

The data were analysed according to “interactional linguistics” – a branch of linguistics which describes linguistic structures and meanings, with particular attention to the social actions they serve in naturally occurring interactions (Lindstrom, 2009).


The analysis of IM conversations identified a broad range of nonverbal cues including non-lexical  tokens to comic strip sounds, as shown at Table I below:


Darics found that communications were either (1) Relationally Oriented; or (2) Transactionally Oriented.

1. Relationally Oriented Strategies

Nonverbal cues can be used to contextualise a message, signal greater emotional involvement and leave an impression of positive cordial communication.

In the following exchange, for example, the leader subtly ensured that notes were taken during a meeting using techniques to create a sense of connection: lower case, familiar spelling, ellipsis, non-lexical tokens, and emoticons.

  1. “Leader: do u know who is taking minute? (note lack of capitalisation)
  2. Staff: No, normally I think Cailey herself takes the notes.
  3. Leader: i dun think so… oh oh (note the leader’s relaxed spelling, use of ellipsis marks “…” and sounds “oh”)
  4. Leader: Mary said she is not the one taking either
  5. Staff: Uhhh…in the past, whenever Cailey didn’t assign responsibility explicitly to someone, she herself was doing the needful.
  6. Leader: oh..ok
  7. Staff: I hope that applies today too
  8. Leader: me too.. ha ha.. 😛 (note laughter and “tongue sticking out emoticon”)”.

The use of comic strips sounds are textual representations of emotions, feelings, or mental state that can assist in enhancing solidarity and creating a sense of belonging.

In the following exchange, for example, the leader in the excerpt uses “grrrrr” (at line 11) to express her frustration, with the situation they are both facing, to which her subordinate replies “i know…”

  1. “Leader: can you download a CL?
  2. Staff: | yes, just loaded now, but its very slow
  3. Staff: still trying to pull a CL
  4. Leader: OK
  5. Staff: still going…..
  6. Leader: cause I just get an error message
  7. Staff: yea – i get the same thing
  8. Leader: OK
  9. Leader: thanks for checking
  10. Staff: OK
  11. Leader: grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
  12. Staff: i know……”.

2. Transactionally Oriented Strategies

Utterance chunking assists in asserting dominance and can serve as a tool to “hold the floor” in a conversation

In the following excerpt, for example, the leader breaks up a single message into several successive messages, rather than delivering it as a whole – this is known as “utterance chunking”.

  1. “Staff: Sorry, forgot about your request amidst a spurt of work that came in . . .
  2. Leader: k
  3. Staff: should I call you or can we ping this one?
  4. Leader: would like to call but on another call
  5. Staff: I’ll wait till you’re done.
  6. Leader: k
  7. Leader: I think we need another sheet
  8. Leader: one that the regions can consolidate there (sic) sheets into a sum
  9. Leader: before pasting the numbers into the global view
  10. Leader: i will explain
  11. Leader: after this call
  12. Staff: okay.”

Disregard for spelling errors may be used to reflect status

In the above except, for example, the leader disregards proper spelling (using “k” instead of “okay” at lines 2 and 6), and grammar (“there sheets” instead of “their” at line 8) and saves on typing effort and editing which, arguably, reinforces the notion that his time is more valuable than his subordinates.


The online environment is the new medium through which work is conducted as well as social interactions. Communication protocols and being blurred across boundaries and thus new techniques are emerging to assist the work of “leadership”. These techniques offer the possibility of synchronising tone and content, thus helping to define a leader’s communication style and enhance impact. Embracing the plethora of tactics is only a keystroke or a mouse-click away… 😉

Implications for Training

Darics argues that the communication capabilities of digital leaders would be enhanced if they were aware of the range of linguistic resources available and felt a sense of confidence in their usage. Communication training could focus on developing knowledge and skills adapted to a digital environment, rather than merely transferring traditional strategies and formulae into a digital context:

  1. Exposure: Learners should be exposed to authentic interactions and encouraged to notice the role and function of linguistic and nonverbal strategies
  2. Reflection: Learners should be encouraged to manipulate some of the linguistic strategies and reflect on how the changes reflect their own interpretation, for example, changing “I dun think so… oh oh” to “I don’t think so.”
  3. Experimentation: Learners should experiment with strategies and reflect on how their language and nonverbal cue use affects the transactional and relation outcomes of the interaction.

Implications for Research

Darics recognises that her research has limitations. Aside from hierarchy, no other contextual factors (education, gender age, IM history between participants, and communication style) were taken into consideration.  However, the findings suggest that gender may influence an individual’s use of nonverbal cues, as men were found to use more nonverbal cues when IM-ing with women. As such, consideration of contextual factors in digital leadership communication warrants further scholarly attention.

The article therefore has implications for future research in the field, and may act as a basis for further quantification to identify patterns.

For more information, contact Jessie Goldie.

To read the full article, see Darics, E. E-Leadership or “How to Be Boss in Instant Messaging?” The Role of Nonverbal Communication” International Journal of Business Communication (2017)

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