Earlybird or Latecomer? How Pecking Order and Timeliness Matter in Collaboration

Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt and Oliver J. Sheldon, Chad A. Proell and Katherine Bowers

Imagine you’re a member of a workplace group asked via email to evaluate an idea. Do you supply your thoughts quickly? Or take time before responding?

Your best approach, research suggests, depends on your status within the group.

If you’re low on the totem pole, it’s wise to be prompt, says Darden Professor Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt, who investigated the interplay of status and timeliness in workplace collaborations. But if you’re high status, your feedback may carry more weight if it’s delayed — even past the expected group deadline.

“That was an intriguing, somewhat counterintuitive finding,” says Thomas-Hunt.

To simulate remote-work collaborations, she and two colleagues from Cornell University ran an experiment in which volunteers worked via instant messaging with an unknown partner, who was described as having lots of related experience (high status) or none (low status.) The volunteer rank-ordered a number of items, submitted his or her scheme to the partner and received back a standardized feedback message, either on time or with a delay.

The results? Low-status partners who submitted delayed feedback were “punished” by being ranked as less competent post-task than they were pre-task. And their influence, as measured by how often their feedback was integrated, also shrank.

By contrast, high-status delayers were not only forgiven for the delay, they seemed to be held in greater esteem because of it. Experiment volunteers ranked their high-status delaying partners as more competent at the end of the task than at the beginning.

Competitive Advantage, Difficult Art

Thomas-Hunt’s findings come when collaboration has never been more vital and more of competitive advantage, yet more difficult for organizations. Employees, dispersed across locations and time zones, must rely on email and other arms-length technology to share ideas and feedback. Too often, good ideas go unheeded, valuable concerns unheard.

Thomas-Hunt and her co-authors, Oliver J. Sheldon and Chad A. Proell, were “interested in the ways collaborations go awry, or don’t reach their full potential,” she says. There was little empirical data on the impact of pacing on collaborations, but the research team felt it was a critical issue to explore.

“In any collaboration, you have people who are working simultaneously on other projects, juggling multiple priorities,” Thomas-Hunt says. “One person may want to move faster than another, and we wanted to see the impact on the person who is perceived as delaying.”

They concluded that “perceived time delay interacted with partner status to significantly shape evaluations of partner competence” and that low-status individuals face the greatest hazards when they violate norms, both for their present ideas and their future clout. So what does this mean for workers? Here’s what Thomas-Hunt advises:

If You Are “High Status”

  • Be aware of the potential for bias. Thomas-Hunt’s work suggests that group members are more likely assume the worst — the person doesn’t care about the task, isn’t working hard, doesn’t have anything meaningful to add — when someone low status responds late. These unfavorable speculations bias the group against the ideas submitted.
  • Consider how quickly you respond, particularly when you have to give negative feedback. Thomas-Hunt suggests a “delayed” response can be effective. “We saw in our work the phenomenon of, ‘I feel better when a person takes the time to review the material, even when they don’t adopt my ideas,’” she says. “This has huge implications for managers not to dismiss ideas out of hand.”

If You Are “Low Status”

  • Clarify timing expectations, Thomas-Hunt advises. Often group emails may be casual “What does everyone think of the proposal?” without specific deadlines. Find out when leaders expect to make decisions.
  • Pay attention to cultural norms, too. One deadline may be stated, but the reality is if you’re low-status, you don’t want to be the last to share your ideas. Being perceived as a delayer may hurt your ability to be influential in the future.

Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt co-authored “When Timeliness Matters: The Effect of Status on Reactions to Perceived Time Delay Within Distributed Collaboration,” which appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology, with Oliver J. Sheldon of Rutgers Business School and Chad A. Proell of TCU Neeley School of Business.

 

About the Faculty

Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt

Thomas-Hunt is an authority in the art of negotiation, the use of power and influence, leveraging expertise, and global diversity. She also researches how women emerge as leaders.

Her teaching and research activities focus on conflict management, negotiation and inclusive leadership within global teams and organizations. She has also spent years... Learn More