Why your e-mail requests get ignored
From HBS Working Knowledge
Special to CNET News.com
April 11, 2004, 6:00 AM PDT
We've all done it. We need a piece of information quickly, or we want to get immediate attention from IT support. So we send off an e-mail to multiple recipients--the more lures in the water, the faster we catch a fish, right?
Well, not exactly, Greg Barron says.
Barron, a research fellow at Harvard Business School, and research partner Eldad Yechiam, a postdoctoral research fellow at Indiana University's Department of Psychology, have studied why online help requests are sometimes ignored. He elaborated on his findings in an interview with HBS Working Knowledge.
Your research into online and e-mail help requests and responses is fascinating. How did you become interested in the topic?
However, my intuition, and that of my co-author Eldad Yechiam, was that two individually addressed e-mails would be more effective. Our reasoning was that one e-mail addressed to both recipients could lead to a diffusion of responsibility where each recipient assumes that the other will respond. We couldn't resist testing the hypothesis empirically, and so these experiments were born.
It seems counterintuitive that the more people that are queried for help, the fewer respond. Were you surprised by your results?
Can you explain a little bit about social-cueing theory and how it applies to your research?
Do you think there is a way to "unlearn" the diffusion of responsibility and, if so, could the change be implemented in service-based industries? On that note, have you found that there is a certain personality type that is more prone to answer online help requests sent to multiple e-mail addresses?
The key to making the dilemma (and the diffusion of responsibility) disappear lies in increasing either the cost of not volunteering (i.e., of shirking) or the personal gain from choosing to respond. The easiest way to do this is simply to designate responsibility. In this context, it is interesting to note that responsibility literally means the ability to respond.
While we have not looked at specific personality types, we did find that requests sent under the female name, Judy Lamson, had a slightly, but significantly, higher response rate than requests sent under the male guise, George Lamson. This finding is consistent with Eagly and Crowley's metaanalysis on the effect of gender on helping behavior. Specifically, they found that people tend to help women more than men. Our study cannot conclusively support this result, since we examined only two senders' names.
In my own experience, when I have a computer-related problem, I often "CC" many people in a group, assuming that the more people I include, the quicker the response will be. Obviously, this is a mistake. How can groups such as IT help desks ensure that help requests have been answered?
This is a good example of increasing the cost of not volunteering--especially for the one person whose job it is to respond. The person who has the responsibility cannot afford not to respond. Clearly, the cost here is in the context of professionalism and a good work ethic.
How can business managers incorporate your findings into their day-to-day operations?
There is a bit of a technological barrier here. Most e-mail clients are simply not equipped to send out personalized e-mails based on a list. This is not surprising, since the need here, for the personal touch, is not technological but psychological. Paradoxically, we need e-mail clients that can do the job less efficiently from a technological perspective.
What are you working on now?
In biology, and more recently in economics, the theory of honest signaling provides some possible insights. According to the theory, signals that are costly to produce and send provide a mechanism by which two parties can have reliable communication, despite conflicting interests (Zahavi's handicap principle). Examples include male peacocks that use costly ornaments to display quality to potential mates and baby birds that use costly begging calls to display hunger.
Eldad Yechiam and I think that there are analogous costly signals in e-mails that signal their quality and, as a result, increase our tendency to read and respond to their message. In the near future, we will be running an experiment that examines this hypothesis empirically.
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