The diffusion of responsibility: Why you need to stop CC’ing people

Most people send vague, confusing emails with no clear call-to-action. Learn how to leverage diffusions of responsibility to boost email response rates

Ramit Sethi

I receive 1,000+ emails every day.

And while I read every one of them, most emails get ignored. That’s because they don’t have a clear call to action. The worst offender is group emails.

You’ve probably been in a situation like this: Your coworker CC’d you and 15 other people about updating a pitch deck for a client. She didn’t explicitly ask for your help, so you figured someone else would take care of it.

Then two days later, you get another email: “Just checking: I haven’t heard back from anyone about the changes to the presentation for the Acme project. We need to get this done by tomorrow.”

And the response? Crickets.

This kills your company’s productivity.

Turns out there’s a psychological reason why we don’t reply to group emails. It’s a phenomenon called the diffusion of responsibility. It explains why you are more likely to do nothing when others are present.

If you can conquer it, though, you’ll be impressed by what you can accomplish.

The diffusion of responsibility: Why nobody replies to your group emails

If you saw some smoke coming from an air vent by you in the office, would you call 9-1-1?

I bet you’d say yes.

But check out this Columbia University study: Researchers sent a volunteer into a waiting room to fill out some forms. The volunteer was either alone, with two other study participants, or with two actors who knew this was an experiment.

After a few minutes, smoke gradually filled the room.

What happened next depended on who was in the room. If a study participant was with other people, they took much longer to report the emergency, if at all.

Take a look:

Did they ever do elementary school fire drills?

This is because when we’re in a group, we tend to assume someone else will take action to complete a task or address a need. So we do nothing. That’s the diffusion of responsibility.

Now, how does this relate to sending group emails?

How to get your lazy coworkers to take action

Too often people will add everyone and their dog to an email. And then that email goes nowhere.

Group emails are great if you want to efficiently convey information to many people. But do not send them if you want someone to take action.

Instead, follow two simple steps.

First, only CC the people who absolutely need to be in the loop. 98% of the time, this will eliminate any diffusion of responsibility. And if you’re not sure if someone should be on the email, don’t add them.

Second, explicitly address the person who needs to take action.

So instead of Susie’s vague email, a better email would be the script below:

And rather than sending this to 16 people, she sends it only to Julie, who can answer her question. She doesn’t need to add Julie’s boss and Julie’s boss’s boss and the janitor, etc.

Leveraging the diffusion of responsibility like this extends to emails you’ve already sent, too.

If you need additional help to address the original problem, reply and only CC those new people and make sure you explicitly call out what they need to do. This way they have the email chain and can catch up to speed quickly.

Get Big Wins with word-for-word email scripts you can start using now

I just told you how to stop wasting time at work with group emails.

But when I was starting out, what I really would have killed for is word-for-word email scripts proven to work. Today I want to give you some scripts I’ve developed so you don’t have to struggle like I did.

These scripts have worked for thousands of my students — people like you who know the importance of email and want to get it right. These scripts cover:

  1. How to set up an informational interview
  2. How to ask for recommendations for people to talk to
  3. How to cold email a stranger for advice
  4. How to write a pitch for a consulting gig or a job interview
  5. How to reach out to others in your company to get to know them

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