Responsiveness v. Reliability

A year ago I was talking with a business coach about the challenges of working from home. Our remote world has limited our face to face interactions for a couple of years. For many of us, working from home has fueled a sense of angst which has blurred the line between our home life and work days. More than ever we feel like we need to be always on. I was asking the coach how he manages his time and finds a way to disconnect both during the day and at the end of the day. He had created clear boundaries around time and availability. He had drawn lines in the sand that separated work from home even though he was doing both at home. His work day had a delineated start and finish time. Outside of the hours committed to work, he was capable of switching off and neither touching nor looking at work until the next day.

I hadn’t been able to achieve this level of clarity and separation. Any attempts at building boundaries, I had let slip and slide into blurry if not broken ones. Erica Dhawan in Digital Body Language suggests that “It takes 90 minutes for the average person to reply to an email, and 90 seconds for the average person to respond to a text message.” I was treating my emails more like the average person treats a text. Rapid responses were the goal. Taking a few hours to respond was something to avoid. Being removed from face to face client interactions has taken its toll. I observed that I was struggling as I felt that in the remote context the only way to “connect” with customers was with responsiveness. Being quick to respond was my answer to Dhawan’s question of, “How do we create connection when up to 70 percent of communication among teams takes place digitally? Our ability to be available immediately, on demand, is something we can provide today. If we can’t be with each other, we can at least let each other know that we’re available and accessible. I figured in a remote world, responsiveness wins. Our conversation went in a different direction, but my comments stuck with me. Why did I feel this way? Is responsiveness really the most important thing to be able to offer?

A related factor fueling a desire to respond rapidly is that responsiveness is seen as a proxy for reliability. Can I count on you to respond may be seen as the equivalent to can I count on you? Where we don’t respond, we’re seen as unreliable. Those in the investment profession know that even though that one of their core services is simply being available. In turbulent times, being available to chat is a reflection of one’s trustworthiness. James Altucher in Choose Yourself writes of a personal experience where he learned the hard way the cost of not being available. Altucher recounts, “The hedge fund manager called me at the end of the month and said, “Look, I’ve called you ten times and you didn’t return the call. Just return the call once and it would’ve been okay. Now I’ve got to take the money back.” He was right. And I told him that.” Altucher’s absence of responsiveness led to a drop in reliability in the eyes of an investor.

Unfortunately, part of the desire to respond rapidly may be rooted in fear and insecurity. Perhaps there’s part of us that is worried that if we’re not waiting and willing when inquiries arrive, we’re devaluing ourselves and our services. We fear that if we can’t provide immediate service, our customers will move on without us. Peter Bregman writes in Four Seconds about how our drive to respond may be fueled by fear creating a false sense of urgency associated with an incoming request. Bregman writes, “But what if someone needs an immediate response? Worrying about that is precisely the kind of misguided rationalization that reinforces our addiction.” Moreover, we seem to have a recency bias that applies to communications. We feel the need to respond to the most recent incoming message first. The longer a message has been sitting idle in our inbox, the less important we deem it. The newest catches our attention and seems to demand our action. Consider whether you feel this way about messages received? Particularly, if you receive a message after hours during the evening of a workday or on the weekend, do you check in, review it, then feel compelled to respond? For most of us, the answer is yes. We interpret these messages as directives. We are less likely to see them as get to it when you feel like it. We imagine that if it is important enough to send outside of regular business hours, it must be important enough to demand action. How do you feel when you receive an email from a customer, peer, or boss at 4:59pm on a Friday afternoon? Does it relax you or spin you into a stress cycle?

Opposite to fear as a driver may be an ego-driven desire to be responsive. Our ability to respond may reflect the importance with which we see our contribution. Our sense of importance may be increased by the immediacy with which we can respond. Look at me, I’m so competent that I can respond so quickly to incoming queries. I’m so on top of my performance that I can rapidly respond. Again, this seems to explain some of our desire to respond to inquiries outside of business hours. We want to show our availability as an asset. Yes, I’m here, I’m listening, I’m available, and I will respond to show my commitment as well as competence. You can count on me.

A third factor driving responsiveness may be a deference to the sender. We may seek to respond rapidly to incoming inquiries to show that we care about the person sending the message. Whether a customer, a peer, or a boss, we want to communicate that they are important to us, they matter to us, and we take them seriously. Our ability to respond quickly, we believe, reflects this message back to the sender.

Finally, as Dhawan notes, “In the workplace, more than making people feel worried, silence often makes our colleagues and co-workers feel snubbed–.” Taking too long to respond can leave others feeling upset. Not wanting to disappoint others leads us to bend towards responding quickly.

Regardless of the reason for relying on responsiveness as our go to tactic, a downside is that our urge to be responsive creates a negative spiral. Because we feel we need to respond quickly, we’re constantly checking for new incoming requests. Our need to respond now fuels a sense of dis-ease. Our anxiety is amplified as we feel we need to be always “on.” We increase our edginess because we’re on hyperalert for what’s new. The uneasiness further fuels a desire to keep checking in. We become like a lab rat repeatedly reaching for the send/receive button grasping desperately for a food pellet. Bregman writes, “What makes email so compelling is that it’s so compelling. I wonder what’s waiting for me in my inbox? It’s scintillating. It also feels legitimate, even responsible. I’m working. I need to make sure I don’t miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion.” Bregman’s sentiment shifts from scintillating to stressful over time. What may at first be exciting searching for the incoming new challenge to consider or feeling a sense of importance at being needed, becomes exhausting.

Where we’re constantly checking for what’s new in order to be able to quickly respond, we’re giving less consideration. We want to dispatch requests as quickly as possible as opposed to thinking through how best to contribute. Independent from the motivation driving our desire for being responsive, does it fuel our best efforts? Is our best work done quickly? Psychologists refer to the dilemma of deciding between responsiveness and reliability as the “speed-accuracy trade-off.” When we lean to speed, we tend to err. Sure, we may want to respond with the speed of Usain Bolt. However, be careful to avoid coming across like a dolt. Do you want to be seen as impulsive or intelligent? A flip or glib reply is one that is done quickly with little thought. Would we rather receive a thoughtless response or one that is thoughtful?

If you are reaching out with an inquiry, is timeliness of a response the most important factor for you? Do you want a quick answer or a quality one? Do you care about an instant answer or an impactful one? Do you want to receive an immediate reply or an insightful one? Does speed of response trump quality? Or, would you rather have your questions answered in detail which illustrates the response has been thoughtfully considered and understands your context? Would you rather have a response personalized in some way suggesting that someone has taken the time to craft the response? Would you also prefer to receive well written responses that have been reviewed and edited prior to sending? All of these may be more valuable than pure speed. For most of us, what we really want is not responsiveness but empathy, experience, and expertise. We want the investment of time, not an impulsive like or thumbs up. We don’t want the emoji. We want our inquiry to have been seen, considered, and responded to in an accurate and meaningful way. We don’t want responses that are almost impossible to distinguish from an auto-reply. The immediacy of reply is less valuable than the contents of the reply.

How can we better put ourselves in a position to provide productive, reliable responses instead of reactive but responsive ones?

A key piece of regaining a sense of control over our reactivity is to work to manage expectations. Dhawan encourages us to do this noting, “It’s perfectly reasonable to set your own boundaries and communications norms.” Craft communications commitments which you can share with customers and others that may be reaching out to you. These commitments could be detailed in an auto-reply to incoming messages or as part of your email signature. For example, the auto-reply or signature could contain a message like the following: “Your request is important to us. We are committed to not just responding to but resolving your request satisfactorily. Our service standard for responding is a business day. We aim to resolve your request within two business days.” Additional contents in this type of message could include requesting some help from those making the request. For example, “In order to help us help you with your request, please provide the following details…..”

Independent from managing expectations, we can seek to reduce our reactivity and urge to respond by scheduling windows to review and respond to incoming messages. Instead of constantly clicking the send/receive button or, worse, leaving the automatic send/receive functionality of our email service on, schedule time within your day to check messages. This puts you back in the driver’s seat of managing incoming requests. These response windows don’t need to be communicated to those outside your organization. Though it may be a good idea to share your scheduled “downtime” with others in your organization to assist with managing their expectations as to responsiveness. Peter Bregman applied this approach to his efforts. He made a personal commitment, without sharing with others, that he would pick one to two times each day to check in with incoming messages. Outside of these periods he would simply ignore and not review incoming requests. Bregman writes of his experience, “I haven’t angered anyone with my new process. In fact, I don’t think anyone has noticed my mini email vacations because responding to an email within a few hours is perfectly reasonable.”

Both of these approaches provide you with space to reflect on your responses. They remove you from the urgency of the moment and allow you to more deeply consider the incoming requests. The focus becomes quality of response instead of timeliness. Urgency takes a back seat to thoughtfulness. A beneficial side effect of this approach may be the irony that pausing to more deeply consider inquiries and responding with detail may actually result in the inquiry being managed faster. Instead of instant responses not fully closing an issue and begging further back and forth, a slower, carefully crafted, and detailed response better resolves the issue.

Dhawan invites us to consider “How can we find the balance between busy inboxes and response times that convey respect?” Perhaps we can consider our responsiveness to be like restaurants? Fast food isn’t better food. Where we want a nice meal, we’re prepared to wait. Managing our expectations and being in a position to provide what is desired by others is where our value lies. Those that are taking the time to make requests of us aren’t fast food customers, they are more likely to be those seeking a fine dining experience. Focusing on the quality of response as our measure of success over timeliness allows us to get off the time train, reduces our anxiety, and allows us to showcase our best work.