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How fast should you respond to emails?

Dr Monica Seeley releases guide to email management

Imagine you’re a member of a workplace group asked via email to evaluate an idea. Do you supply your thoughts quickly? Or take time before responding? Your best approach depends on your status within the group, suggests new research from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

“If you’re low on the totem pole, it’s wise to be prompt,” says Darden Professor Melissa C Thomas-Hunt, who investigated the interplay of status and timeliness in workplace collaborations. “But if you’re high status, your feedback may carry more weight if it’s delayed – even past the expected group deadline.”

To simulate remote-work collaborations, she and two colleagues from Cornell University ran an experiment in which volunteers worked via instant messaging with an unknown partner, who was described as having lots of related experience (high status) or none (low status). The volunteer rank-ordered a number of items, submitted his or her scheme to the partner and received back a standardised feedback message, either on time or with a delay.

The results? Low-status partners who submitted delayed feedback were “punished” by being ranked as less competent post-task than they were pre-task. And their influence, as measured by how often their feedback was integrated, also shrank.

By contrast, high-status delayers were not only forgiven for the delay, but seemed to be held in greater esteem because of it. Experiment volunteers ranked their high-status delaying partners as more competent at the end of the task than at the beginning.

Thomas-Hunt’s findings come when collaboration has never been more vital and more of competitive advantage, yet more difficult for organisations. Employees dispersed across locations and time zones must rely on email and other arm’s-length technology to share ideas and feedback. Too often, good ideas go unheeded, valuable concerns unheard.

Here’s what Thomas-Hunt advises:
If you are “high status”:

  • Be aware of the potential for bias. Thomas-Hunt’s work suggests that group members are more likely to assume the worst – the person doesn’t care about the task, isn’t working hard, doesn’t have anything meaningful to add – when someone low status responds late. These unfavourable speculations bias the group against the ideas submitted.
  • Consider how quickly you respond, particularly when you have to give negative feedback. Thomas-Hunt suggests a “delayed” response can be effective. “We saw in our work the phenomenon of, ‘I feel better when a person takes the time to review the material, even when they don’t adopt my ideas,’” she says. “This has huge implications for managers not to dismiss ideas out of hand.”

If you are “low status”:

  • Clarify timing expectations. Often group emails may be casual (“What does everyone think of the proposal?”) without specific deadlines. Find out when leaders expect to make decisions.
  • Pay attention to cultural norms, too. One deadline may be stated, but the reality is if you’re low-status, you don’t want to be the last to share your ideas. Being perceived as a delayer may hurt your ability to be influential in the future.