Why do we all have a voicemail system and why do people continue to leave them? Abby Vige discusses instant gratification…
When we’re stuck in the work grind and we see our phone light up with news from beyond our present moment, our spirits buoy a little! Yay! Then we drop when we realise it’s just a voicemail. It’s almost as bad as when you think have a text but it’s just spam from your telecommunications provider. Sigh.
I have to admit that I never clear voicemails, some people even state in their voicemail greeting that they do not clear them, so why do we all have a voicemail system and why do people continue to leave them?
Voicemails date back to the late seventies when a chap patented his unique “Voice Message Exchange” and sold the electronic message system to 3M. Since this master stroke of genius, we have never looked back. When voicemails were invented they made sense, there were no emails and faxes were yet to reach their peak. But do they make sense as a business or connection tool in this modern era?
A message from beyond
The reason I don’t tend to clear my voicemails, is because as soon as someone leaves one the news instantly old. Or, there is very little information that warrants the effort of clearing them all and then phoning each individual back “hey, Susan from accounts here, phone me back” why should I?
Enter the experiment phase…
After having this question kick around my head for awhile, I decided to scratch the itch of my curiosity and prove what I thought to be true. I listened to every voicemail across 2-3 days and phoned each person back, the top results were:
- They had already emailed me the query and was surprised I was phoning them
- The issue at hand had substantively evolved
- They had found out the answer themselves
The motivation for them to leave the voicemail had initial merit, but in some instances, just minutes later the situation had changed. My stark conclusion was that most of the conversations were in effect, a waste of time.
Now, I don’t want to be seen as a VM hater, Procurement is a customer centric, customer service industry. But this is not the way I add value to my customers or to my organisation. Voicemails fall in to a “reactive” space for me and I’m much more of a pro-active gal. I love to be accessible to my customers, but you’ll often find me at their desks in person because face to face conversations are worth it.
What’s driving Susan?
The experiment was interesting and somewhat validating but the question remains, why do we feel the need to leave the dreaded VM in the first place? Most people assume that it’s because email as a written form, takes longer to write out verses simply phoning the person and requesting that they phone you back. It’s also generally accepted that voicemails enable us to convey emotions and urgency.
But what is really driving us is more of a simpler basic human need, the need for instant gratification. The term itself is self-explanatory but it in this context what is driving us is our self-centric view of the world. Even though we know it makes sense to write an email and include more information and leave it for when the person is available to digest it, we forgo these long-term benefits in favour of short term benefits that resolve something in our world, we feel better.
This is subject that has piqued curiosity for many years and found its roots in pop culture through the 1960’s infamous “Marshmallow experiment”. This was a major psychological study conducted by Stanford Professor Walter Mischel where children between 4 and 5 years old were given the choice of having one marshmallow to eat right away or they could wait for the researcher to come back and they would get two. The results of watching the kids wait has been the subject of many a video and even adverts.
How this plays out at work
The desire for short term gratification is often exasperated by the pressures of a work environment where the sense of needing to get things done and done quickly rules supreme. What underpins the need for instant gratification? The need for the issue to be passed on, to be received – ultimately to be heard.
We eat the marshmallow over and over, we can’t wait, we can’t help ourselves. Those of us that don’t leave voicemails most likely transfer the gratification to other media or medium. Even your neat and pretty to do list or post it note system fits the short term satisfaction bill.
The biggest insight gained from the experiments was the link proven between delaying gratification and being successful in life. Those 4 and 5 year olds from the 1960’s that waited for the second marshmallow, had higher academic scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.
What we can learn
If we train ourselves to be less reactive and to delay those hard wired gratification urges, we can increase our productivity in focused and targeted areas. Ultimately raising our value to the organisations we work for, whether that is a company or working for yourself.
Take the challenge….
- Don’t leave voicemails
- Pay attention to your inner world, before you take action, think about what is driving that action
- Start small and repeat that small action each day
- Keep visual reminders about your top priorities
- Keep yourself accountable