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Neil Patterson

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An incident by the CEO of Cerner Corporation is one of the representative email cases found in textbooks. This project studied problems observed in the case from the perspectives of communication, organizational justice, and perception. This paper began with description of the organizational case, identified communication problems, and analyzed them based on organizational justice and perception. This study incorporated the three different domains to comprehensively explore the case and suggested a unique approach to the complexity of human behanviors.

When thinking of company emails one might think of the inappropriate forwards that contain attachments of videos of cats from you tube that circulate through the organization or the necessary communications exchange confirming appointments or other important information. But sometimes there’s those heated exchanges much like the infamous email Neal Patterson CEO of Cerner Corporation, is best known for. His email is now covered in text books as “What not to do” in email communications. His email has become notorious and is now textbook material (Chapman, 2004). The email created a firestorm for the Cerner Corporation, in which the email was sent throughout the organization and on to media sites (Wong, 2001).

Within days the company’s stock prices dropped dramatically. The scope of Patterson’s leadership has been scrutinized by investors, analyzed by business professionals, and lectured on by academics. Thanks to the example of miscommunication Mr. Patterson has given us, we are able to discuss in detail how the importance of proper communication, and how communication, organizational justice, and perception are all interconnected. The purpose of this project is to explore an example of the corporate incident by applying theoretical concepts in three domains: communication, organizational justice, and perception. This paper will identify specific problems of the organizational case with a focus on communication, apply concepts of organizational justice to the case, and further analyze the problems in the light of perception. Communication

Characteristics of Organizational Communication Technology
Now, this section discusses organizational communication technology and media richness theory, in order to identify specific problems perceived in the CEO’s email incident case described in the previous section. Email is one of organizational communication technologies, which has been extensively used as a central communication tool in organizations. Compared to conventional communication media, Miller (2006) described the six characteristics of the technologies: transmission speed, geographic dispersion, asynchronism, and nonverbal communication cues. Messages are transmitted faster than conventional channels, participants can geographically spread out to communicate with others, at different points in time, and nonverbal messages such as emotions are communicated using unique cues (e.g. emoticon, uppercase letters for email). The company case indicated some problems closely related to the characteristics of the organizational communication technologies.

Transmission speed was relatively fast, as it took just a week until the email was quickly publicized via the Internet, attracted public attention, and resulted in the stock drop. Participants in the email were geographically dispersed, as the CEO could address about 400 managers in various locations at once. Asynchronism is observed in the one-week timelag between email transmission and publicizing on Yahoo. One of the most problematic factor was nonverbal communication cues: uppercase letters (e.g. EMPLOYEE, not CARE, SICK) and strong language communicated highly negative emotions that were interpreted in different ways from CEO’s intention. The varied interpretations were caused by ambiguity of the email message, which is a significant factor to determine media richness. Media Richness Theory and the Selection of Communication Channels

Media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987) is a representative approach in studies on email use in organizations. Daft and Lengel (1986) conceptualized the media richness approach on the assumption that organizations are systems with equivocality, in which interdependent individuals interact in a highly complex manner. Equivocality is a different concept from a conventional idea of uncertainty. Uncertainty (a traditional concept) is defined as the absence of information, and the amount of information determines the level of uncertainty. For example, managers reduce the level of uncertainty by acquiring new data (e.g. additional info). On the other hand, equivocality means ambiguity, “the existence of multiple and conflicting interpretations about an organizational situation” (p. 556). Therefore, managers reduce the level of equivocality by exchanging opinions to figure out the problem and resolve disagreement (e.g. clarifying, reach agreement).

Daft, Lengel and Trevion (1987) adopted the concept of equivocality in an empirical study on managers’ selection of communication media, and developed the media richness model. The richness of each medium was evaluated from four dimensions: feedback, multiple cues, language variety, and personal focus. Feedback indicates the availability of instant feedback that allows questions and corrections of the ongoing interaction. Multiple cues include voice inflection, gestures, graphic symbols, which are similar to nonverbal communication cues used in organizational communication technologies. Language variety indicates the range of meaning conveyed with language symbols. Personal focus shows the level of conveyed personal feelings and emotions.

Based on the four dimensions, Daft and Lengel (1986) compared media richness of four communication media including face-to-face interaction, telephone, addressed documents, and unaddressed documents, and found the level of media richness was high in that order (face-to-face interaction is the richest medium). In the study, the researchers found that media varies in their capacity to convey information cues; managers preferred rich media for equivocal communications, while media low in richness for unequivocal communications. The media richness theory explains how media richness influences the selection of communication channel that managers should be sensitive to. High performing managers are more sensitive to media than low performing managers.

Now, the theoretical concepts in the media richness theory are applied to identify problems in the CEO’s email case. The level of equivocality was relatively high because the email varied interpretation of its message. The content was not routine and task-basis and conveyed highly negative emotions that are highly sensitive. Feedback and nonverbal cues were limited due to the use of written message only. The email was addressed managers, though the degree of personal focus was small due to the large number of managers. Judging from the several dimensions observed in the case, the CEO was supposed to select richer media (face-to-face, teleconference, etc.) than email as lean medium. This section of communication discussed organizational communication technologies and media richness theory, and applied the theoretical principles to the company’s case in order to clarify communicative problems. The next section will further analyze the company case from the viewpoint of organizational justice. Organizational Justice

Organizational Justice in Theory
Organizational Justice, defined as an overall perception of what is fair in the workplace, is a powerful driver of behavior in the workplace. Because of the ultimate impact to business productivity, it is important to understand how fairly employees feel that they are treated by their employers. A perception of justice in an organization enables more cohesive workgroups as well as greater job commitment, both of which improve job performance and ultimately the organization’s bottom line. Organizational Justice not only applies to the greater org, but to each relational level we have with our coworkers. The nature of those relationships can be categorized by the three components of Organizational Justice: Distributive Justice, Procedural Justice, and Interactional Justice (Cropanzano, Bowen, & Gilliland, 2007). Distributive Justice focuses on the perception of fairness of outcomes, such as level of compensation or benefits. One of the most popular or relatable theories of Distributive Justice is the Equity theory, where an employee compares the equality of their treatment, pay, or benefit compared to a referent other, considering the ratio of outputs to inputs.

Meaning, the employee’s perception of the level of compensation is equitable to the effort expended when compared against another employee. When an employee feels that they have worked hard and are compensated well as compared to their coworkers, there is a sense of justice. A feeling of injustice can surface when someone feels that they have worked very hard but were not compensated as well as a coworker whom they perceive did not work as hard. Procedural Justice focuses on the perception of fairness of processes used to determine the outcomes discussed under Distributive Justice. Such processes as determining compensation or the application of benefit criteria would be considered for Procedural Justice. When those processes, are perceived as accurate, consistent, and ethical, employees feel justified. However, Procedural Justice has the greatest impact to an organization when there is a feeling of injustice. An employee focuses on why they didn’t get something they think they should have, like a bigger office. An empathetic explanation of the decision process rather than a complete change may suffice for restoring the sense of justice.

Interactional Justice focuses on the perception of fairness of treatment from authority figures. These interactions can be multidimensional in an organization, occurring between coworkers of differing levels, manager to employee, or even at the level of the organization as a whole. When employees perceive they are treated with dignity, concern, and respect, they feel a sense of justice. A perceived injustice, such as mistreatment or disrespect, in those interactions can be very demotivating and extremely detrimental to workgroup and organizational productivity. It is important for us to consider how the management of organizational justice can be a powerful tool for driving motivation and ultimately profits. Alternatively, organizational “injustice” can be harmful and lead to very counterproductive work behaviors. We will explore the injustice a little further using our corporate case study of Cerner Corp. Organizational Justice at Cerner Corp

Let’s think about the perspective of the 400 some managers that received this email from their CEO, Neil Patterson, “…You have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you…What you are doing, as managers, with this company makes me SICK…” (Wong, 2001). One can ascertain that those managers probably felt some anger, maybe fear, possible disgust. We already discussed the faux pas of this email in respect to communication. Now we will further analyze the employees’ perception of the fairness of the email from an organizational justice perspective. Most importantly, we will discuss the employees’ reaction to the email, leading to a significantly negative financial impact to the organization.

Going back to our theory discussion a little deeper, let’s note Interactional Justice and its definition: “an individual’s perception of the degree to which he/she is treated with dignity, concern, and respect” (Robbins & Judge, 2009). Our case study of Cerner Corp is a classic example of Interactional injustice. Patterson’s use of email, harsh language, and demeaning message caused his employees to feel great injustice, as it would most likely have similar effect on any of us. The email exuded disrespect, which can be as demotivating as it is demoralizing.

However, the email’s greatest relevance to us in this discussion is what it prompted Cerner employees to do. They reacted by posting copies of the email to a Yahoo! web site. Yes, what a great way to get back at someone important…public humiliation! The perception of injustice can cause a variety of counterproductive or even deviant work behaviors. Employees’ retaliation can vary from water-cooler gossip to stealing. In the case of Cerner Corp, the reaction to the perception of injustice caused the targeted managers to go public with the email, and then it went viral. It is organizational justice that helps us explain why the email went public and now is “textbook” material for what not to do via email. We have explained why this was a “bad” email from a communication perspective, which caused a feeling of injustice in the organization. Next, we will further discuss the greatest impact to the organization by delving into the viewpoints of perception. Perception

We have already hinted at questions like “Why would the CEO send out such an e-mail?”, “Why did the managers chose to upload the e-mail online?” and “What happened as a result of this conflict?”. In order to get a better understanding as to what is going on psychologically in someone’s mind when writing or reading such a message and answer these questions, let’s take a look at perception from three different perspectives: CEO’s perception of management, management’s perception of the CEO, and the general public’s (or shareholder’s) perception of the company as a whole. CEO’s Perspective

Looking at the situation from the CEO’s perspective, we can notice that he is very upset with the employees of the company. In the e-mail he states “The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m.” (Burton & Silverman, 2001). Patterson is clearly concerned with intellectual property and traces the lack of effort of the employees back to the managers as he wrote in the e-mail “As managers you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or YOU do not CARE.” He is putting emphasis on the words employees, you and care. He strongly believes that it is the managers’ fault the employees are not performing at their best. Neil Patterson must have been firmly convinced that employees are not turning to other means of transportation (which would explain the sparsely used parking lot) to get to work but are lazy by nature and don’t show up to work early enough. Also, we can conclude that he chose e-mail as the media likely because he was upset at the time and wanted to reach his audience immediately. Waiting to schedule a meeting and addressing the issue then might have calmed him down and he wouldn’t have said everything he felt at the time. Management’s Perspective

The recipients of this e-mail decide to post a copy of it online that would be available to the general public. We ask ourselves “Why?”. On this part we can only speculate and look at the facts. Management was clearly upset and felt that the e-mail was harsh and unprofessional and believes he could have tackled this problem using a different approach or by formulating the content of the message a little less offensive. The managers of Cerner wanted to share the message with the public in order to show they had been treated unfairly. They believed they deserved better than to be bashed in such a harsh tone over e-mail. Also, by posting the message online they were maybe not taking Patterson seriously or they were maybe just trying to pay him back by exposing his unprofessionalism and anger on a blog. The message was sent out to multiple managers and contained the same content. When reading the e-mail and knowing that multiple managers have received it, one might think that Mr. Patterson is not distinguishing the good managers from the bad ones. Being put in the same pot with all management can also be seen as unfair and unjust. All it takes is one manager to initiate the post online and as mentioned earlier in the text public humiliation is a bold way to pay someone back. Stockholders’ Perspective

In order to answer our final question we need to take a look at the situation as a whole from the perspective of an innocent bystander or maybe even a stockholder. When the public views this e-mail online they might judge the CEO to be rude and unprofessional. Judging Patterson’s whole character by this one e-mail would be explained by the halo effect. We then start to doubt that management respects their CEO and looks up to him or otherwise they would not have posted such a private e-mail. And if we combine a CEO/management conflict with a CEO’s lack of professionalism and leadership skills we start to doubt whether we want to invest in this company. And indeed, as mentioned before, shortly after the e-mail was publicly available, the Stock price plummeted 22% in three days. Conclusion

The current project studied a company, Cerner Corp, through perspectives of communication, organizational justice, and perception. Specifically, theoretical concepts of organizational justice and perception analyzed communicative problems perceived in the organizational example. This project adopted an analysis method that synthesized three interconnected conceptual frameworks to explore the case in a multidimensional way. This project also raises an interesting question: was Neil Patterson actually effective? There is an inconsistency between the huge failure of the email and the present situation of the CEO and Cerner Corp. Although Patterson’s email was grossly inappropriate, he was never terminated. In fact, he remains CEO of Cerner Corp after more than 30 years. And even though the stocks plummeted 22% in reaction to the bad publicity of Patterson’s email, Cerner Corp has rallied back and continues to be one of the largest providers of electronic medical systems in the United States.

Neil Patterson got his point across…and then some. Perhaps it was his quick apology and accountability that was so reparative. He quotes, “You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy” (Wong, 2001). The facts of case study indicate the complexity of human behaviors in organizations; the unique approach that this project employed may contribute to better understanding of this complexity. The Patterson email was meant to redirect his employees to a motivational state that was expected. Instead the email demotivated employees and created a drop in Cerner’s stock prices. Although, the email to an extent was taken out of context the message was still clear. There was effectiveness to the email as it confirmed a problem within the culture of the organization. The CEO ultimately sent another email several days after the ‘Management Directive’ email; the second began with, “Please treat this memo with the utmost confidentiality. It is for internal dissemination only. Do not copy or email to anyone else” (Wong, 2001).


Burton, T. M., & Silverman, R. E. (2001, Mar 30). Lots of empty spaces in Cerner parking lot get CEO riled up: Email scolding employees gets posted on a web site; stock price takes beating. Wall Street Journal, pp. 3-B3. Chapman, C. (2012, October 17). Cerner CEO predicts workplace changes. Retrieved from http://www.jewell.edu/gen/media/achieve/summer2004/cernerCeo.html Cropanzano, R., Bowen, D. E., & Gilliland, S. W. (2007). The management of organizational justice. Academy of Management Perspectives, 21(4), 34-48 Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science, 32, 554-571. Daft, R. L., Lengel, R. H., & Trevino, L. K. (1987). Message equivocality, media selection, and manager performance: Implications for information systems. MIS Quarterly. 11, 355-366. Miller, K. (2006). Organizational communication: Approaches and processes (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Robbins, S. P. & Judge, T. A. (2009). Contemporary theories of motivations. In Organizational behavior (13th ed.). (pp. 195-203). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Wong, E. (2001, Apr 05). Chief executive is criticized after upbraiding workers by email. New York Times, pp. 1-C1.

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