Why the way you’ve been using email is wrong

15 April 2016 -


New research reveals how the way you use email should be based on your seniority at work

Jermaine Haughton

For many managers, opening your inbox to a flood of emails has become as common as delayed trains and office gossip.

The seemingly endless clicking of “reply” and “send” could frustrate even the calmest, most patient workers, leading many people to send emails without thinking about what’s been written.

New American research has revealed that the time you take to reply to an email can impact your level of influence and even your perceived level of competence at work.

With nearly 207 billion emails to be sent by 2017, according to the technology-research firm Radicati, the goal for most recipients is to get their inbox to zero unread.

The majority (55%) of all email users admit that they don’t open and read messages regularly, whether business or personal. In 90% of cases, senders are likely to get a response the same day.

Half the replies to these emails are under 43 words, and the most common length was just five words long according to research from Yahoo Labs and the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute.

A growing etiquette

The prevalence of email makes it the dominant work communication method, surpassing face-to-face or phone conversations for many office workers around the world – due to its reach, paper-trail and speed.

Now there is growing evidence that an etiquette has formed around the process of simply receiving and replying to an email – from the method of addressing the recipient to how quickly one should respond.

According to a new study from the University Of Virginia Darden School Of Business, if you are a low status employee you would be better to reply quickly; but, counterintuitively, if you are high status a late reply can give more weight to your feedback.

Professor Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt, and two of her peers 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 subsequent results found that low-status partners who submitted delayed feedback were ranked as less competent in their ability and role than they were pre-task, while high-status delayers were not only forgiven for the delay, they seemed to be held in greater esteem because of it.

“In any collaboration, you have people who are working simultaneously on other projects, juggling multiple priorities,” Thomas-Hunt says. “One person may want to move faster than another, and we wanted to see the impact on the person who is perceived as delaying.”

The study’s findings suggest interesting implications for office workers and their ability to effectively communicate ideas and feedback with colleagues, clients and suppliers in different locations and time zones, at a time when collaboration is vital for large and small businesses to maintain a competitive advantage.

Thomas-Hunt suggests a “delayed” response can be effective for senior managers of organisations.

“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.”

By contrast, however, she admitted that low-status individuals face greater risk of damaging their reputations and, potentially, career prospects by being perceived to be replying to messages slowly.

“Clarify timing expectations,” Thomas-Hunt advises. “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.”

On that note, I better get back to my inbox…

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