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Melissa Thomas-Hunt

University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Associate Professor of Business Administration

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How fast should you respond to emails at work?


There’s so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics’ Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. 

Does the speed with which you respond to emails at work affect your colleagues’ impressions of you? That’s what we wanted to find out, and the results may surprise you. 

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. For example, if you’re low on the totem pole, it’s wise to be prompt, but if you’re high status, your feedback may carry more weight if it’s delayed — even past the expected group deadline.

This is an intriguing, somewhat counterintuitive finding.

The experiment and the findings

To simulate remote-work collaborations, myself 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. Their influence, as measured by how often their feedback was integrated, also shrank.

Low-status partners who submitted delayed feedback were “punished” by being ranked as less competent

By contrast, high-status delayers were not only forgiven for the delay, they 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.

Competitive advantage, difficult art

Our 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 arms-length technology to share ideas and feedback. Too often, good ideas go unheeded, valuable concerns unheard.

Too often, good ideas go unheeded, valuable concerns unheard.

My co-authors, Oliver J. Sheldon and Chad A. Proell, were interested in the ways collaborations go awry, or don’t reach their full potential. There was little empirical data on the impact of pacing on collaborations, but we felt it was a critical issue to explore.

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

Low-status individuals face the greatest hazards when they violate norms

We conclude that perceived time delay interacted with partner status to significantly shape evaluations of partner competence and that low-status individuals face the greatest hazards when they violate norms, both for their present ideas and their future clout. So what does this mean for workers?

Here’s what we advise:

If you are ‘high status’

  • Be aware of the potential for bias. Our research 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 unfavorable speculations bias the group against the ideas submitted.
  • Consider how quickly you respond, particularly when you have to give negative feedback. We found that 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. 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.

Want to read more about communication in the workplace? Read Engaging employees in the age of social media

3 Responses

  1. Good time managers would ask
    Good time managers would ask the person when they need the feedback by, irrespective of status.

  2. I find it hugely demoralising
    I find it hugely demoralising to even consider the terms ‘low’ or ‘high’ status. If we’re going to truly tackle inequality in the workplace we need to get rid of these terms and stop treating people as if they’re somehow incapable or incompetent. I suggest people read ‘Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time’ which informs you of exactly how teams should work together, ditching titles/status and working as equals where everyone’s view, idea and suggestions is seen as valuable. There are far better ways of working together when in different ends of the world than email e.g. Asana, Convo, Slack etc.

    I’m glad you wrote this Melissa though, it confirms to me that we’ve got a long way to go before we have workplaces that are fit for purpose!

  3. First off Melissa, while I
    First off Melissa, while I applaud your positive commentary about “rich” insights coming from the land of academia, there are numerous examples of insights that have plagued the business world, eg the idea of slashing the bottom 2 of every 10 Staff based on their performance reviews.

    Notwithstanding, we desperately need those insights to keep coming, because it is then up to us in the business community to evaluate and apply as we see fit. So please do not take my comment as criticism sufficient to stop what you and your colleagues are up to!

    As for this email stuff, I would suggest that senior folk delaying their responses sends the worst possible message to the troops. Then to applaud the lateness of response while everyone else sits around waiting, is the kind of academic thinking that can work against your institutions. So I’m sorry, but that research will not be recommended to my clients in this little corner of the world, Central Otago in New Zealand.

    Cheers. DonR.

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Melissa Thomas-Hunt

Associate Professor of Business Administration

Read more from Melissa Thomas-Hunt

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