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How to Increase Trust in Email

I was straightening my office and found an article I had printed off the Internet, "Karen Stephenson's Quantum Theory of Trust," written by Art Kleiner and published in 2002 by strategy+business. It is a fascinating article about relationships in business–not hierarchical relationships, but the work, social, and networking relationships that affect a company's success.

The article touched on business writing, specifically email, on the last page:

"One easy way to improve the level of trust, anytime and anywhere, is simply to increase the speed with which people respond to communication. When people return our calls or e-mails quickly, it sends a signal that we can rely on them because our connection, however distant, is important enough to claim some of their attention. 'Human beings always keep an internal accounting system of who owes what to whom,' says Steve Haeckel, director of strategic studies at IBM’s Advanced Business Institute, who has collaborated with Professor Stephenson for 10 years on some of the trust-related research she’s done. 'Response time is one indicator of the degree of trustworthiness of the other individual.'"

When I finished reading the article last night around 10 o'clock, I pulled out my laptop and responded to a few emails I had hoped to get to earlier in the week. I want people to trust me. If fast responses build trust, I am going to work on responding faster, even if only with a short message telling the individual when I will respond in detail.

Could you increase trust with customers, coworkers, and people who report to you by responding promptly to their email? Does response time affect your trust in others?

Syntax Training


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “How to Increase Trust in Email”

  • At my day job (, I manage to stay up on e-mail pretty well.

    But in my spare time, as president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (, I often find it difficult to keep up. The most troublesome e-mails are those for which I don’t have an immediate answer, or which require a delicate touch. I hate to write back “I’m not sure how to respond,” so I flag the message, and too often it gets buried by more pressing matters. Even writing, “I’ll get back to you on this” doesn’t avoid the problem of buried messages. So I’ve been practicing the art of apology, “Sorry not to have responded sooner,” when I do get back to the message.

    I’m wondering how effective such apologies are for increasing or reestablishing the trust you mention. Here’s hoping other commenters will weigh in on that, as well.

  • Hi, Lester. Like you, I hope my apologies rebuild trust. When I myself receive a belated response with an apology, I respond positively. I also establish a new expectation for the individual–that he or she will respond eventually if not promptly.


  • I totally agree with you Lynn and the author of the article . When you e mail someone you anxiously expect the response, even with an automatically message, still shows certain interest in the other part.

  • The notion that a speedy reply to email improves trust relationships assumes that everyone is sitting at their PC just waiting for any email to arrive. Perhaps this is a little more prevalent with more people monitoring email through PDAs, but I think it is a seriously flawed notion.

    Email is, by its nature, an asynchronous communication — that is, it doesn’t rely on those involved being in an almost-real time ‘conversation’.

    One of the general problems with email communication is people’s unrealistic expectation of immediate — or at least speedy — response. If you want immediate response, wait till your target is online and use IM or use the telephone.

    That’s not to say that a courteous acknowledgement that you’ve taken a while to respond can’t have benefits.

    It would be akin to squeezing toothpaste back into the tube, but perhaps we’d be better off trying to educate email users not to expect immediate or speedy responses?

    I wrote a paper on aspects of social network analysis (SNA) for my Masters degree in Virtual Communication, and SNA is a genuinely fascinating field. If, however, speedy response is crucial to the process or to establishing or maintaining trust, email is not the communication mode I would choose.

    Could I venture to suggest that endeavouring to respond speedily to all email, whether to develop trust or otherwise, would make you a slave to your Inbox and reduce your productivity by an alarming degree?

  • Hi, Terry. Thanks for taking this question seriously.

    You and I may each have a different interpretation of “speedy,” which indeed was not defined in the article. To me, speedy would be within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the urgency and importance of the message. I would like to respond to all my legitimate email within that timeframe, but I often cannot because of classes, travel, and various commitments.

    When I read the article on Thursday night, I immediately thought of two emails: one from a woman with whom I had had lunch on Tuesday who then wrote to me on Tuesday afternoon, and another from someone requesting permission to use my copyrighted material. She had written to me a week earlier, and I had not responded yet.

    I think the trust issue was relevant in both situations. In the first, I had offered to review the woman’s resume. When she sent it, I needed to either respond that I had received it or respond with feedback on her resume. I didn’t choose the first option because I thought I would be able to respond quickly with feedback, but then other work intervened. With the passage of time, I would worry that my offer would seem insincere and therefore diminish trust.

    With the request for permission, I always need time to review the request closely. However, if a week goes by, it is not unrealistic for people to think I am not going to respond and therefore do not deserve their trust.

    After reading the article on Thursday night, I responded to both messages and a few others. Then I was pleased to feel a bit more trustworthy.

    If I hired an assistant to handle all or most of my email, I could see that my messages get a response within 24 to 48 hours. Perhaps that is the answer to avoiding being a slave to email while building trust through quick responses.

    Thanks for participating in the conversation.


  • Hi, Lester. Thank you for the link to the apology article. I read it and am interested in reading more about the studies themselves. I am intrigued that we are more satisfied with an apology that we imagine than one we actually receive.


  • I find myself on the fence regarding this topic. My initial reaction to the article excerpt was in line with Terry’s argument above, however when I analyze my own experiences I see how trust can be related to speed of response.

    I could rattle off the names of several coworkers that I do not trust. The distrust stems from the fact that these are the individuals I constantly have to follow-up with and haunt because they have a habit of not responding to my requests. Even when I put something in the subject line (like the company president’s name, which the communication is legitimately about)they still require numerous forwards and phone calls before receiving an answer.

    I try to reply to an email within 24 hours and coworkers trust that I will get back to them. When I fail to reply quickly they assume that there are higher priorities on my list- because I wouldn’t just not respond. They will call or email something like, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, you must be swamped.’ I prefer that they have the occasional disappointment rather than label me as someone they cannot rely on.

  • Nick, thank you for your very interesting views about your coworkers who do not respond promptly, if at all. I also enjoyed reading that you have built trust with your coworkers through your prompt responses.

    Are you still on the fence? It doesn’t seem so.


  • Email has changed the way we do business. Sure, people complain about the amount of Email they receive. But when all is said and done, using Email has impacted business in a positive way and has the edge over other methods of communication.Here are five advantages of using Email:
    -Managing Email is Easy
    -Email is Fast
    -Email is Inexpensive
    -Email is Easy to Filter
    -Transmission is Secure and Reliable.

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