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January 7, 2013 / alipeles

The Responsiveness Trap

The Responsiveness Trap

I started this blog with an admonishment, “Acknowledge important email right away”. Today I ran across Sarah Green’s sharp rant in the HBR blog about struggling with the email avalanche. Nobody reasonable, she writes, can respond thoughtfully to everything. So, we tend to fall into a trap of reacting instead of responding, a critical distinction. Reaction acknowledges receipt. Response requires actual content.

Because I sympathize with her dilemma and because I don’t sleep with my smartphone, Sarah’s solution resonates, even though it’s unsatisfying: accept that her replies will be slow and senders frustrated, but respond quickly only when she can or must and flag the remainder for follow up, knowing full well that many will go unanswered. 

Email toes a subtle line between real-time and asynchronous communication. Usually, we choose email over phone calls because we don’t require immediate responses. But, sometimes we choose it because we need to involve multiple people and keep a log of the communication.

By all means, do acknowledge important email right away, but make sure it’s important. Don’t let the balance overwhelm you.

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