What your email response time says about you

By Catherine Woulfe In Psychology

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Here’s a finding about how we focus on others that is likely to ring true for every worker bee: the length of time it takes a person to respond to an email predicts how powerful that person is.

“The boss leaves emails unanswered for hours or days; those lower down respond within minutes,” writes best-selling American psychologist Daniel Goleman.

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Columbia University has developed an algorithm to trawl through emails and reveal power structures. Researchers tested it on former high-flying US company Enron and found it fitted the pattern, and intelligence agencies have since used the tool to map the structures of suspected terrorist gangs.

Goleman says similar dynamics are evident in face-to-face interactions, and this is a real-world manifestation of what he calls the empathy gap. “The relatively powerless pay keen attention to the powerful and also to the needs of people around them. But high-powered people tend to tune out of other people by comparison.”

Goleman insists an understanding of focus is critical for employers, managers and leaders. “Some managers pay no attention to attention, and the result is that the people they manage are constantly interrupted and distracted. Some managers are oblivious to the costs, but the costs are real.”

He cites 2010 research by two Harvard psychologists who developed an iPhone app to track our tendency to daydream. The app would beep at random times of the day, prompting the 2250 participants to report whether their mind was wandering or focused.

Turns out that minds wandered half the time. Participants were most focused when they were making love, exercising, talking with another person or playing, in that order.

“The biggest danger periods are when we’re sitting in front of a computer and when we’re working,” Goleman says, chuckling. “When I work, I sit in front of a computer, so it’s amusing to me to watch my mind tootle off somewhere else.”

Not so funny for chief executives with an eye on the bottom line, though. So what’s a manager to do?

Goleman: “First, they should wake up to the fact that they’re managing attention, and that their job in some sense is to help people focus and stay focused.”

He urges employers to introduce “creative cocoons” – windows in the day during which employees are not to be interrupted. “They don’t have to answer email, they don’t have to answer the phone, they can just get that one thing done that’s going to make them feel good at the end of the day.”

In a recent visit to the offices of the Huffington Post, Goleman came across another focus-fixer: nap rooms, which employees are free to use when they’re not flat-out.

Smart move, he says, because a quick nap “reboots the brain”, giving employees more capacity for focused work.

Employers could also consider training their staff in meditation. Goleman advises not basing it on any religion and keeping it simple.

“The most basic [method] is just to watch your breath, notice when it wanders, bring it back and keep it where you want it. That is like doing repetitions with weights in a gym. Every time you do that, it thickens and strengthens the circuitry for paying attention.”“The relatively powerless pay keen attention to the powerful, but high-powered people tend to tune out of other people.”

For more insights from Daniel Goleman, read this week’s Listener cover story: Centre of attentionSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

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