You know what I mean – when you send out an email (or text) and you get no response; and you’re left wondering.

    – Did the message get through or is it stuck in the firewall, or even lost in cyberspace?

    – I guess she/he is pretty busy and doesn’t have time for me.

    – I wonder what I’ve done to offend???

I used to think it was just me who is overly sensitive to radio silence but in raising this topic with many others I now I know this is a common reaction – many of us worry and speculate over the lack of response to our emails.

Usually this failure to respond is because of the heavy burden of email traffic these days. People don’t mean to offend – they just can’t get to all the messages and they have to take priority decisions about which ones they can reply to. Even if it is reasonable to know that you are not on their priority list, it still feels bad to accept the lack of response. It feels like rejection even where none was intended.

I recently read an article that recommends to executives to deliberately ignore email from staff and others in the interests of utilizing time efficiently and conserve energy. But I wonder what that means for relationships and leadership. I think there are other solutions to this problem of information overload: Information overload can minimized in two ways:

    – by increasing our information processing capacity:

      o Learn to read faster
      o Scan efficiently
      o Removing distractions
      o Time management (working smarter, not just longer)

    – and by reducing the job’s information load:

      o Buffering (assistants screening information)
      o Summarizing (requiring senders to include executive summaries or abstracts)
      o Omitting (the practice of learning to ignore less important information, and accepting the risk).

In some cases the radio silence may even be deliberate show of power – by withholding the favour of a reply (remember that quaint old English expression?) the receiver is, even if subliminally, demonstrating that you are not that important to them.

Ego and self-esteem are the most powerful factors in any relationship. We all seek approval from those who matter to us and we send out ‘bids’ for attention – just like in a marriage. John Gottlieb has shown that in intimate relationships when the sending party does not receive a positive response from his significant other to his or her bid at least 30% of the time, the relationship is doomed.

Business or collegial/professional relationships are not in the same category as marriages of course – but by definition a relationship only exists where both parties derive some benefit from it. No doubt each party may have different expectations of the other but it is always understood, implicitly, that some reciprocity is necessary for the relationship to be sustained.

That is why radio silence is so destructive to relationships. And insidious – subtle, apparently innocuous, but nevertheless deadly.

I’m not saying that you need to respond to unsolicited email from unknown parties, but it’s from people you know and with whom you want to sustain an ongoing relationship, even if a casual professional relationship, a short pleasant reply will do – “Thanks for you email, I can’t get to it just now but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can”. Even in a relationship you don’t want to sustain a response should be explicitly conveyed rather than leave the sender in doubt.

When I send out my annual Groundhog Day and Lammas Day e-cards to 650 of my closest friends I go through a series of emotional responses. No reply is expected (really?) but I am pleased when about 10% of these people actually take the time to respond with a short note. But this leaves me to wonder, what happened to the other 600 people? I even get a little spark of closure when the auto-response comes instantly back telling me that my intended recipient is out of the office! At least its better than radio silence.