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Communicating with the Unresponsive

This column will be Al Switzler’s last. He is transitioning to a more advisory role and will be supporting some of our non-profit efforts. We will be introducing new thought leaders in coming issues of Crucial Skills.

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do I do about a supervisor who doesn’t respond to or acknowledge e-mails and other correspondence from me? I even use the “read receipt” which indicates that it was read, but still no response.

Awaiting a Response

Dear Awaiting,

When I read questions like this, I sense frustration, self-doubt, and difficulty in restraining your anger. But before I respond to your question, let me start with a caveat. Every situation varies. Since I know so little of the specifics, history, and stressors, I’m shooting in the dark a bit. But, hopefully you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt if I have guessed incorrectly.

With this in mind, I’d like to insert your question into a bucket that contains other similar questions and challenges:
• “What do I do when my supervisor makes a commitment to involve me in decisions and then doesn’t? I feel uncomfortable chasing her down all the time.”
• “How do I respond if someone I work with goes to radio silence—someone from whom I need information, help, or approval?”

And so I will offer three tactics for responding to these kinds of challenges.

1. Start with Heart. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. You have some history with the other person. You know how long this has been going on. You could explain how many times you’ve tried to talk with your supervisor about his or her unwillingness to respond. I’d say that, in one way, regardless of the background, you should start by asking the “humanizing question” with a twist. The humanizing question is this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This is an invitation for your brain and emotions to engage in an empathy exercise. What could be going on with your supervisor? What stress is s/he experiencing? In what ways could you be part of the problem? And here is the twist: In what ways could you be part of the solution?

Allow me to speculate here. Could it be that your supervisor is facing tons of stress from above and is acting as a buffer between you and the stress? Could it be that your supervisor gets 547 e-mails per day and is simply swamped? Insert all the empathetic responses you can think of here. Then create a plan to be helpful. You might go to him or her and ask if it would be possible for you to send fewer e-mails by setting a weekly (or daily) five-minute meeting to keep your projects speeding along and to keep him or her informed. Together, you will need to work out the specifics. But I think the principle is sound. Begin with empathy, find the key barriers, and then try to be part of a solution—rather than maintaining the stance that your supervisor is the problem.

2. Clarify the workflow. Often when there is a struggle in a relationship, it’s because the people involved are dependent on one another for many actions—sometimes too many. For example, what do you need from your supervisor and what does your supervisor need from you? Do you need updates or approvals? Delays cause you grief and radio silence has you sitting on your hands. Does your supervisor need trust and predictability? Is this a complicated project that has your supervisor juggling seventeen balls with little time left over to answer e-mails? The conversation you might have is about empowerment—getting more on your plate and less on your supervisor’s. Go to your supervisor with a plan for how you might streamline your work in a way that continues to give the supervisor increased trust and predictability.

Years ago, we worked with an organization that had hundreds of forms requiring anywhere from four to fourteen signatures for approval. Our analysis found that any signatures above the first four were redundant—people signed the form simply because the person before them signed it. They reduced the number of signatures dramatically and thus reduced the waiting time between approvals. You might go in with a proposal, in question form, about moving more of the approvals to you. Additionally, show how you would keep the supervisor informed and when and how you would deal with exceptions. Such a discussion would make you part of the solution.

3. Talk about the real issue. I saved this for last with good reason. Sometimes we don’t feel we can talk about the real issue without trying other tactics first, so I’ve led with them. However, I stress that this may be the first tactic. The real issue with your supervisor is not that s/he is not responsive. The real issue is that there is a pattern adversely affecting the quantity and quality of your work. Sometimes the assumptions we make about our supervisor and our relationship keeps us from the real discussion. Generally, I’d suggest that reframe your assumptions and find a way to talk about this pattern. Select a good time and a private location. It might go something like this: “I’m finding a consistent need to get information or approvals from you but then have to wait on the messages I send. I’d like to talk about what we might do to make this process more efficient so the projects can proceed smoothly. Would that be okay?” The two of you can share ideas and make a plan. If that doesn’t happen, I would also have a script prepared where you could talk about your Mutual Purpose—you aren’t trying to cause more stress but trying to find solutions that would make it easier for your supervisor while allowing you to get your work done more quickly and efficiently. I would then suggest tactics like the two detailed above. I like going into any crucial conversation not only prepared for the topic at hand, but also with several other strategies to use if the first plan doesn’t work.

Will it work? I don’t know. Will the situation improve if you do nothing? I doubt it; it seldom does. Do you have enough tactics and scripts and enough Mutual Purpose and respect to engage in the conversation and feel confident that some progress will be made? Absolutely.

I wish you the best,

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15 thoughts on “Communicating with the Unresponsive”

  1. Dale

    When I read the question, I wondered if the letter writer was like my wife, who is always needing reassurance. Many of the emails may not need an answer except for giving reassurance.

  2. Tom Ehrenberg

    I recently encountered the same issue with a new department head. While I am not his direct report there were certain times I wanted his perspective
    on certain things that came up. I invited him to a meeting on a topic that would need his approval before a final decision would be made. He not only
    didn’t attend the meeting he neither accepted or declined it. I took the time to realize that his inbox and the number of other meetings he needed
    to attend may have caused him to miss the invite. I stopped by his office and asked, “Is there some reason you didn’t respond to my meeting invite? I
    know you have a busy schedule and I am sure your inbox gets a lot more emails than mine and you just may not have seen it.” I felt this gave him
    an out. He apologized and stated that he just plain didn’t see it. I kiddingly asked him if he had all my emails set to go automatically to trash. He
    laughed and said no. I felt this lightened the situation up a little. He went over to his white board and put his name on it and put a check under his
    name to signify it was on him. He commented that he trusts my judgement and if he is needed to weigh in on the topic to let him know.
    We continued the conversation and in the same vane I brought up a few other instances of no response. He added more checks under his name. We both chuckled about it and the communication has gotten much better. I in turn have made an effort to not send him any emails
    or copy him on emails to someone else if it is not absolutely necessary he is included. His time is valuable too. One added bonus, our company requires
    Crucial Conversations for all members.

    1. Pastor Cathian

      Hi Tom,

      I was really touched by this. You and your boss seem to really have a good relationship, regardless of the lapses that occur. It is good that you are courageous and kind (a wonderful combination of strengths to have).

      I have a relationship with my boss like that, and he is a blessing. I know that if he misses something, it is because he is swamped, so I usually ask him what I can take off his plate so he can focus on something else. If he fails to respond, he always apologizes later. It helps to know that he values the work I do for him. There is enough of a free exchange of ideas between us that I never feel stifled, so if I have an idea that he doesn’t like, I can recall all the ideas he did like, and that helps me not to take it personally.

      Thank you for adding your comments.

  3. kathyslattengren

    I love the way your approach encourages empathy by asking “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” I think many relationships could be saved if partners asked that question and ponder possible answers.

  4. Patrice

    I agree with your advice and here are a couple specific tactics to consider. Call the supervisor (if they are remote to your location) and ask what is the best way to reach him/her for different types of inquiries or situations. If you have to use email, include subject line indicators like “Action requested”, “Clarification needed”, “Alert notice about problem”, etc so they can scan a full inbox and detect urgency and type of interaction you need with them. If you are CC’ing them on every little and big correspondence for every project, talk to her/him about approaches for keeping her/him informed that are preferred over email messages.

  5. HomeCook-N

    I can relelate to the email overload situation. Especially when the employee does not truely require approval.

  6. HomeCook-N

    As a manager who received several 100 to 1000’s of emails daily, I had an one employee that sent me 15-20 lengthy, detailed emails daily. While I appreciate being cc’d on what is going on, in the event I get a question back on a project. This is just information overload, plus this employee is a single parent & is always needing to come in late, leave early etc for appt’s, etc. Personnaly I trust the person & I don’t need to both approve the time off request, then have him/her send another email to tell me they are leaving & when they return. (one example) We’re salary & a high performance team. I did take the time to discuss the # & frequency of emails, & she/he is sending less now. However, on my small team, I still recieve 5 emails from one employee, to one from the entire rest of the team. I concur with one of the othe reply’s above & have determined this person(an excellent employee by the way), just requires more reassurance & maintenance. The 80/20 rule will always apply. sigh…

  7. Sarah P.

    Having been the manager who received dozens of emails each day, here’s some of what a reasonable, rational person might be experiencing:

    –I had a direct report who cc’d me on EVERYTHING. I couldn’t discern when she truly needed me and when she was seeking cover. In that case, my predecessor had expected to have every detail documented and punishment was harsh if there were later surprises, so we were both living in the previous manager’s shadow. A direct conversation helped us agree to new ground-rules – and my backing her when she did get in over her head proved I was true to my word.

    –I’ve been in big cc groups where I learned if I sat out the first 5-6 rounds of “reply all” messages, I could weigh in once – with the benefit of input from many. Since I spent my days in meetings and was catching up on emails at the end of the day, this became a survival mechanism.

    –I’ve been known to set up my email to warn me if the sender had requested a read receipt – and usually declined. Why? I think it gave me a sense of control, when my overflowing email box felt out of control. Passive aggressive? Yep.

    –Using headers in the subject line as referenced in a previous post helps a LOT.

    –I learned tips for managing my email that were very useful. For example, how to set up my Outlook so messages where I was the only recipient showed up in a different color, so I KNEW I had to prioritize them. How to make messages from my boss appear in yet another color. How to set up “rules” so less important messages went right into a folder. With outgoing messages, I learned to assign “to-do” dates, so they would turn red in the recipients’ email boxes if they hadn’t acted on them by a deadline. If you suspect a colleague might be drowning in email, helping them identify a few basic ways to make their in-box manageable is likely to be MUCH appreciated.

    –Recently I’ve read about folks who use auto-response messages to help both sides. The outgoing message might read, “Today (8/13/14) I am in meetings all day. Please know I’ve received your message and will respond as soon as I am able – which might be midday tomorrow. If you need a response more quickly, please call my cell at….” This alerts the sender that their email went to the right person, and helps them know when to expect a response. It keeps the recipient from panicking when they get back to their desk and find 200+ unread messages waiting.

    –ABOVE ALL ELSE: a conversation, in real time, works magic.

  8. AJ

    Agree with the approach. I have used prefixing the email subject with actions required of them. And it mostly gets the attention. Thanks for your approach of ‘Empathizing’, ‘Analysing’, ‘Solution Options’, ‘Discussion’ and ‘Implementation’. Am sure this would resolve many of such concerns.

  9. Kathy

    Thank you Al, for all your excellent insights and wonderful communication demonstrated through oral and written education materials. I wish you all the best for your new venture.


  10. AJ McFall

    Wonderful article with some very helpful comments. Appreciating you Al, and wishing you the very best in your new phase.

  11. Bryan H.

    Adding an action word in the email subject line like “Approval Request:” and the the normal subject can help the recipient know if this is just an informational email or one that needs approval or clarification, etc. Improving our ability to write clearly and highlight the next steps needed if any are critical to getting responses.

  12. Marie

    I am one of those supervisors who do not respond to all emails right away. Certain people I work with on teams use emails to “delegate up” rather than take on the responsibility that was assigned to them. I have taken the approach that emails are very useful for exchange of information. However, when a problem comes up, it is time to take the initiative to book a meeting with me to discuss the issue. I appreciate your article and the comments will help be refine my approach to emails.

    1. ßill ßeechwood

      I too can relate to the email overflow. In a recent position where I was a manager, the standing rule was that if I was on the To: line, the it required my action, otherwise, use the CC: line. I was so strapped for time that I literally had to prioritize which email I read, by sender and topic. My current manager and I have an understanding that if he doesn’t reply, I use my best judgement and we deal with the outcome. If it’s especially critical, I’ll call.

  13. Barbara

    You let the supervisor off the hook easily. I do think the subject line is a great place to denote priority. The supervisor has an obligation to his/her employees – that is part of the job and response to prioritized emails is important.The number of e-mails is not so important – I received 200 emails a day – still made time for my staff; another solution is to take 5 minutes to walk around the department and speak to the employees to see if they have anything to discuss- could be faster than weeding through emails. If the employee is sending too many fyi’s – the supervisor needs to remind the employee that they are empowered, and that they trust their decisions.If the employee is not comfortable doing this, they need a little one on one mentoring for reassurance.

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