Responding Versus Responsiveness

I’m a productivity guy.  It’s what I do.  As a result there are two cardinal rules in my world.  First, never be late.  It’s not only poor form, it displays a complete lack of command for the concept of time management!  I’ve often had clients joke that they couldn’t believe THEY were late for a meeting with the “time management guy,” but it’s not a reputation someone in my field can survive.

The second rule of thumb is to be responsive – highly responsive. I take it very seriously.  To me, responsiveness is the essence of good relationship management.  When my clients are confident that I will get back to them in a timely manner with information that assists them in their efforts, we have a strong relationship.  Not only is that good for my business, it makes working with my clients a pleasure.

When I talk about responsiveness (in conjunction with its siblings – efficiency and effectiveness), I often find that people confuse “responding” with “responsiveness.” Understanding this distinction is important to your individual productivity and success.  This article outlines some of the distinctions between each, and lists their relative advantages and disadvantages.  Some suggestions for improving both are also included.


Responding to someone is an acknowledgement.  It’s like nodding your head when someone is speaking to you; you’re acknowledging that they’re talking to you.  For example, a reply to an e-mail with “Will do!” is responding to the request in the original e-mail.  A return phone call with “I got your message and will take a look at the question, then get back to you.” is also a response. 

The primary advantage of responding to others is to assure them that you received the communique they transmitted.  This is generally a good thing, though somewhat contrary to good time/workflow management principles for the reasons stated below.  Nonetheless, a modicum of benefit is achieved if others feel better knowing that you received what they sent.

The primary disadvantage to responses is that they are unproductive.  There is activity but no corresponding productivity.  You did something – responded to the e-mail – but nothing got done in the process.  Consequently, that time is literally lost.  This is especially true in the world of e-mail.  We’ve all received a second e-mail from someone asking us if we’d received the e-mail they’d sent us 10 minutes earlier, right?  Now two people are wasting time!  Responding to phone calls with a brief acknowledgement of having received an earlier call is a similar example of this kind of activity with no productivity.

So the question is, How can we respond to others in a more efficient, yet still effective, way?  Looking at e-mail, there are two options.  First, we can setup an auto-responder that acknowledges that we’ve received their e-mail and will attend to it as soon as possible. Similarly, we can use our outbound voice mail recording to communicate the same message.  (Note, for voice mail recordings, it’s a good idea to give callers an alternative to just leaving a message, which further demonstrates a desire to “respond” to their needs.)

Second, if you are working with people collaboratively, you can suggest that they set their e-mail program, or even each individual e-mail, to send a “read receipt” that gets returned to them when the e-mail has been opened.  This puts the onus on them to determine when they need a “response” to a message they’ve sent.


Being responsive is delivering a substantive communication.  I liken this to moving the ball down the field.  We didn’t just acknowledge that someone communicated with us, we actually provided them with information that advanced the effort.  An example of responsiveness is to reply to an e-mail with “I received your e-mail, took at look at the file and will have a definitive answer for you on Friday.”  In this case, you’ve set a specific time when the sender can expect to hear back from you.  The ball has moved slightly down the field.  (An even more responsive answer is, “I looked at the file and this is what I think we should do.  What are your thought?”)

The advantage of responsiveness is that it’s productive.  Things are getting done, expectations are being managed, and everyone is communicating with each other in a manner that builds strong relationships.  The key point here is that you are managing expectations, which is probably the single most important relationship management skill you can develop for a successful career.  The better you manage expectations, the better the results of every effort will be.

The only real disadvantage to being more responsive is that it usually takes longer to deliver a substantive communication than a simple acknowledgement.  So, the real challenge is learning to execute this skill in a timely “enough” manner.  Here are three ways you can increase your responsiveness right away, along with links to longer articles written on each subject:

  • Regularly Surveying All You Command.  At least three times each day, stop and review what’s going on in our world.  This short interlude in our day can be used to re-prioritize what needs doing and gives us a list of things we can update others on in terms of progress made and any changes to deadlines.  More on this here
  • Batch Process Your E-mail.  New e-mail alerts have created in us a Pavlovianesque twitch whenever a new e-mail arrives in our Inboxes.  This fosters an almost-maniacal need to respond to each one immediately.  The reality is that e-mail is an asynchronous communication technology which means that the communication is not intended to occur in real time.  Thus, we should batch process our e-mails instead of sitting in our Inbox and respond to each one as it arrives.  Check the Inbox as frequently as necessary – every 15 to 30 minutes – but deal with e-mail in batches.  That allows us to be more productive and, consequently, more responsive, throughout the day.  More on that here
  • Rhythms. A further refinement on the batch processing notion is the batching together of work that requires the same type of attention and energy.  There are three basic types of work behaviors we use each day – Rapid Fire, Short Burst, Extended Focus.  By doing like things together, we will be more productive and, again, more responsive.  More on the rhythms of work here

The Same But Different

Though derivatives of the same concept, “responding” to a request and being “responsive” to one are very different things.  Each adds value to working relationships, but responsiveness adds more value. 

We must seek ways to quell the immediate-response needs of co-workers, clients and colleagues by using the technology at our disposal so we can focus on being more productive and, ultimately, more responsive to them.  The result will be stronger relationahips, which is always a good environment in which to work.

3 thoughts on “Responding Versus Responsiveness

  • (Commenting here and on the blog)
    Excellent points and I agree with them.
    It is a sad fact, though, that responsiveness, responding and (dare I suggest it) responsibility are losing ground. Despite all the statements companies are making otherwise, it seems more and more companies are losing the battle (it’s less the case with solopreneurs, consultants and such, me thinks). I’ll offer that a reason for the losing battle is that people are frustrated more often than not in today’s world, know that the squeaky wheel gets the most grease, squeak before they think and the end result is that the company/solopreneur/consultant gets to an overload state where responsiveness and responding get lost.
    Just my thoughts.

  • Joseph,

    Thanks for comments!

    I agree that our current working environments create a situation where people struggle to just keep up. As both a solopreneur/consultant (QuietSpacing) and co-founder of an online retailer (Outdoorplay), I see the solution as a two-fold mechanism. First, I believe that each individual makes choices throughout the day on how to handle their incoming communications, work, etc. This is both a perspective and skill set issue. With the correct perspective (“I’m in charge”) and good skills, commanding their individual workloads is possible.

    Second, as a business owner with employees, I believe it’s my responsibility to encourage the persective mentioned above and help each person develop those skills. It’s also my responsibility to lead the way by providing clear instructions in my own outbound communiques such that people know what’s expected of them, etc.

    Thanks again for your input!


  • Great point! I’ve heard of increasing efficency by not sending the ‘Thank You’ email after receiving something you requested, because it is a waste of the sender and receivers times, but never thought of responsiveness vs. responding.
    It seems very much like the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. You can be very efficient and get lots of stuff done, but unless they are important and valuable, they are not effective.

    In both cases it’s the concept of making progress, of moving things toward a result, not just off your desk, that is the key.

    I’ll try to keep this in mind.


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