5strategiesCan you picture the following exchange ever taking place?

President: Where is the report to Congress?

Presidential Aide: Oh, I didn’t get it done because the Secretary of State didn’t return my email.

That conversation is almost impossible to imagine. However, have you ever been party to a conversation like this?

Boss: Did you get the information we need for the report?

Direct Report: No. I emailed her three times and never got a response.

Boss: But I asked you for those two weeks ago.

Direct Report: Well, what am I supposed to do if she doesn’t return emails?

This exchange is not only an imaginable interaction, but also one that is way too frequent in many organizations!

If you’ve been the boss in a conversation like this, I know what you might have been thinking at the time, or said after you rolled your eyes (figuratively or literally) or sighed in exasperation. If you haven’t been the boss, but the one that failed to get an email response or phone call, here’s what the boss thinks (and some may say):

“All I’m hearing are excuses, and the job didn’t get done. Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call her? And if she didn’t return your second call, ask to speak to her supervisor or the supervisor’s supervisor–like anyone with brains (or initiative or leadership skills or fill-in-the-blank) would do?”

Do you hear the implied labeling in this response? The boss does, even if it’s only subconscious.

  • Lazy
  • No initiative
  • Not a problem-solver
  • Easily intimidated
  • No leadership potential, etc.

The problem is that those labels stick in the boss’s mind. Should it happen more than once, the labels get permanently connected to an individual’s name. When it’s time to assign an exciting project, fill a management vacancy or determine raises and promotions, there’s that label, getting in the way. The boss’s thought process may go like this: “He did a pretty good job on that last project, but I don’t think he’s quite ready for this one,” or “She could probably do this, but…” Whether the boss is conscious of the label or not doesn’t matter. Negative labels often weigh twice as much as the individual’s name and personal work history record.

If you were the Direct Report, what might have been the consequences for you? Project, promotion, possibilities–all lost–and along with them your opportunity to be recognized as a leader.

So, to avoid missing out on being labeled and being removed from the leadership track, it is critical to find a way to get what you need from others.

What is the most effective strategy for dealing with people that don’t respond to valid requests by way of email, voice mail, or snail-mail? Playing helpless or making excuses is obviously not the professional way of handling things. Neither is losing one’s temper in an attempt to badger a response.

Here are 5 strategies for helping others be accountable when you need something from them:

  1. Make the request extremely clear. In addition, make the request sufficiently in advance to allow time for possible glitches. Telling the person why the deadline is important and/or that if you have not heard from them by x date, you will follow up, gives an added incentive to respond in a timely fashion.
  2. If this is the first encounter, give the person the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he or she is ill or away on vacation and forgot to turn on the Vacation notice. It’s also possible that your email never made it through cyberspace. If you do not get a response to your first email within a reasonable time, send a second to ask whether they received it and ask for a reply or call back within 24 hours to confirm. If you have not heard back in that time, make a call. If you can’t get through, leave a respectful voice mail with the same request for a response.
  3. If you’ve been burned by this person once before and do not receive a response, don’t assume ill will. Call and find out if there’s any problem and ask how you can help facilitate a response. Agree on a new deadline if you have that latitude. If you receive no action by the due date send an email, click on either “Request a Delivery Receipt” or “Request a Read Receipt” under Options. Repeat the fact that the matter is urgent and that if you have not heard back by a certain time, you will need to speak to the supervisor to get the information.
  4. If you are dealing with a chronic abuser of basic courtesy, set out your expectations and plan of action in your first email. Assuming there’s time, send the first request with “Request Read Receipt” checked and a copy to the Supervisor. Indicate that if you have not heard back by a certain time, you will assume approval of your request and move forward. If in doubt, start moving up the chain of command until you get results.
  5. Maintain basic courtesy no matter what.

You might be asking, “Why not just pick up the phone or walk into their office?” This question brings up an excellent point. If the person is accessible for a face-to-face conversation, always start there. I am convinced that direct communication is always best and that email should NEVER be used as a way to avoid that or to avoid saying something important but unpleasant.

However, on the flip side of that, when a person has a pattern of not responding to requests, sending an email provides a written record of your actions if needed. Assuming you stick to facts, it is also less vulnerable to distortions, i.e., “I thought you said it was due Friday!” or “I don’t remember hearing you say that.”

Ideally, we all respond to valid requests for information within a reasonable time. I prefer the 24-hour turnaround. However, in a time when everyone is bombarded with invalid and questionable requests alongside the valid requests, assuming the best about your contact is essential. However, holding the other person accountable is also essential–and the only way you can meet your goal.

So, what are you waiting for? Make your comments on this post or forward it to all of your closest friends by noon tomorrow.