In an era defined by instantaneous communication, one would expect our interactions to be sharper and more responsive than ever. Yet, a disturbing trend is emerging: emails left unanswered, voicemails unattended, and social posts glossed over. Ghosting and a general lack of responsiveness have transitioned from being a mere social media faux pas to a pervasive business practice across many functions:
Recruitment: It's become increasingly common for companies to ghost job applicants. When we interview candidates, many will talk of being left waiting indefinitely, without feedback or even a rejection notice.
Supplier Management: Companies, particularly large, established ones go silent on vendors and suppliers, leaving them in limbo without the means to understand why they might not be hitting the mark or being able to contact a real person.
Internal Comms: Employees complain about being left out of the loop, not receiving responses to emails, or being ignored by colleagues or leaders.
This phenomenon isn't just a minor inconvenience. Growing research suggests that such non-responsiveness can inflict significant reputational damage to individuals and organisations and disrupt the human network that is the foundation on which the organisation relies.
At the organisational level, the root of this behaviour is often blamed on overloaded schedules, poor prioritisation and inconsistent communication etiquette. At the individual level though, are we just feeling so overwhelmed we’re just disconnecting?
Either way, the implications are clear – damaged reputations, lost trust, missed opportunities and low morale.
Why aren't they listening to me?
I see three significant reasons behind why we are struggling to get our message across to the people we want to work with most:
1. Cognitive overload: Our brains are not wired to handle the onslaught of digital notifications we receive daily. A study from the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to a task after an interruption. Thus, the constant hail of information nuggets hitting our inboxes every day seems to be genuinely too much for many. Consider the smartphone notifications we receive - a 'ping' from a work email, a social media mention, a promotional offer might all demand attention – let that build up over a few hours and it’s easy for the important stuff to get lost in the mix.
2. The asymmetric, algorithmic black hole: Platforms like Gmail, Facebook and Outlook use complex algorithms that decide which messages or posts you get to see first and how prominently. Those algorithms are driven by rules that evolve based on pattern recognition and not by logic and decision frameworks actively managed by the recipient. Furthermore, those algorithms are heavily influenced by the commercial value of the message being sent. A report by The Verge, suggested only about 10% of a page's followers might see a new post without paid promotion.
3. The dehumanisation of digital: A study from Computers in Human Behaviour highlights that digital communication often lacks the socio-emotional cues present in face-to-face interactions, making it a much less emotional decision to deprioritize or ignore. For example, ignoring a text message doesn't evoke the same guilt as avoiding someone's gaze when you don't respond to you in person.
But why do we think it's acceptable to be a ghost?
The myth of busy-ness: Harvard Business Review recently discussed how modern society equates "busyness" with status. Not replying might actually boost some people’s perceived importance, “if they really want to talk to me, they’ll try again”. My guess is that somewhere in many people’s minds, when looking at the sea of hundreds of unread emails full of potential tasks, any work is better than no work and it’s easier to stick with the thing you’re doing than something new.
Fear of imperfection: According to research from the University of California, the pressure to respond perfectly can cause delays in response from minutes to days or even solicit no response at all. Have you ever found yourself avoiding an email request because you don't have all the answers they're seeking, fearing an imperfect response will look unprofessional?
Shifting communication norms: A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reveals that digital communication norms are evolving at pace that we humans haven’t experienced before. I’ve seen that first hand how my kids adopt completely different personas, modes and methods for each communication platform they use. Maybe we need to take a lesson from them.
What can WE / YOU do about it?
- Establish dedicated communication time blocks: set aside specific blocks of time, free from other tasks and distractions. Prioritize checking emails, returning calls, and responding to messages during these periods. Ensure that, during these time blocks, all unnecessary notifications are turned off, and your workspace is optimised for focused activity.
- Prioritise mindfully: Use the Decide, Do, Delegate, Drop framework to categorise demands on your time. Maintain an HVT (High Value Task) list and do them as soon as possible within your dedicated time blocks. Designate a specific day of the day or week to address non-urgent communications.
- Humanise your digital interactions: Personalise responses. Avoid generic or template-driven replies when possible. Use names and reference previous interactions or conversations to build a stronger rapport. Pick up the phone or switch on your camera and don't be afraid to show your emotions.
- Use technology to improve efficiency: Schedule responses, set reminders to follow up, utilise a unified inbox tool to combine messages from different platforms, set your own rules with custom notifications to highlight priority communications and filter out noise.
- Declare your terms: Provide context and set expectations on response time in your out of office. Communicate openly about your preferred communication methods.
- Audit your habits: At the end of each week or month, evaluate your responsiveness patterns. Which messages did you miss? What caused the delay? Seek feedback from trusted peers or colleagues on your communication style and responsiveness. Adjust and refine your methods based on feedback and self-assessment.
- Implement a follow-up system: Keep a record, whether in a digital tool or physical notebook, of important conversations that require follow-ups. Set reminders to revisit these conversations. If an immediate response isn't possible, acknowledge receipt of the message and give a timeframe for a detailed reply.
- Keep learning: Stay updated with the latest communication tools and best practices, learn from others outside our normal environment. Attend workshops or webinars that focus on improving digital communication and responsiveness.
- Use the wildcard system: when you see something come in from an unknown caller or sender, once in a while treat it as a wildcard, at least give it a read, and if you’re feeling generous and it looks like it’s a real person behind it, drop them something back - you never know what it might bring.
I wrote this article because, over the last few months, me and my team have experienced unprecedented levels of ghosting, from people and organisations that you really would expect better from. I still hope that for some, it’s because our messages just aren’t getting through the algo, but I know for sure that for many they’ve already slipped into the other side, hiding behind the digital curtain.
The digital landscape, though vast and intricate, presents opportunities for genuine connection. By being aware of and navigating its behavioural intricacies, we can foster richer, more meaningful interactions and improve our EFFECTIVENESS in the modern age.
Delivering EFFECT is one of the 8 dimensions of Human Performance. To find out more about how we leverage the OHP framework to help individuals and teams perform at their best in some of the most challenging environments on the planet, get in touch.