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When Leaders Won’t Respond to Your Emails

Dear Crucial Skills,

My role involves working with all departments in the organization. I send important emails to executive teams and usually do not get replies. As an internal consultant, I need to get information from the C-suite. What should I do?


Dear Ignored,

Thank you for your inquiry. Nothing can be more frustrating than needing a response to complete the work at hand and not get a response. This can be magnified when the reply is needed from an executive or anyone senior.

While every situation, and every executive team is different, let me offer some ideas that hopefully will help.

Start with Me

It’s tempting to fall into a “this is happening to me” mindset. Your question began with two very important words in any challenging situation: “My role.” One way to view each situation is to compare it to actors on a stage. In theater every actor plays a part.

Likewise, in the workplace, employees at every level play a role—not just in the organization but also in the situation. As you consider the lack of response from the executive team, begin by asking the question, “In what ways have I been playing a part? Are my behaviors, assumptions, or expectations impacting the results I’m getting?”

Here are some other questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I communicating in their preferred style?
  • Are my emails clear and concise?
  • Am I allowing them adequate time to respond?
  • Am I respecting their boundaries?
  • Have I established proper communication channels?
  • What can I do to be better?

Remember, the purpose in these questions isn’t to assign blame but rather to accept some responsibility for the results you’re getting and gain control of your emotions. This also empowers you to be more effective.

Move to Them

The other temptation is to tell yourself a villain story and assume the C-suite’s lack of response is intentional. We often tell ourselves clever stories as to why people in power and authority work so hard to make our jobs even harder.

To overcome this tendency, ask a humanizing question, “Why would reasonable, rational, decent people act this way?” This can foster empathy and help you shift from focusing on the problem to become part of the solution.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • What stresses or circumstances may be keeping them from responding?
  • What are their preferred communication channels?
  • Do they have a preferred time of day or specific format for their messages?
  • Are they overwhelmed with the number of emails in their inbox?
  • Has their schedule been busy? Full of travel?
  • Are there competing priorities?

With this line of questions, the intent isn’t to excuse behavior, but rather to understand it. In any attempt to change behavior, the answer to the question why people are not doing what we need them to do will be the greatest predictor of our influence.

End with We

Once you have checked your stories, I’d suggest scheduling time to meet with the executive team individually or collectively to create a mutual purpose on how you communicate and manage workflow.

Make it clear that your intent isn’t to complain or add more stress, but to find solutions that allow you to best serve them. Share with them the specific challenges of delayed responses, and ask if they are open to finding a solution that would satisfy everyone. Together, work to create a communication process that not only works for you but makes life easier for them as well. The goal should be to build trust, increase predictability, and get results.

Hope that helps,

PS. If you have had to work with unresponsive leaders, please share what you’ve learned in the comments section.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

19 thoughts on “When Leaders Won’t Respond to Your Emails”

  1. Kate C

    I tend to be guilty of creating the villain story, but have gotten good at leaving it as a story in my head rather than letting it dictate my actions (took some time and aging/maturing to get there though).

    In my situation, my executive leadership tends to be quite responsive. On the odd chance I am not getting a much needed response (and I know they are not traveling), I will either schedule a few minutes on their calendar or swing by their office to get the needed input.

    The unresponsive people in my org tends to be my colleagues. I know they are busy so if it isn’t critical, I let it ride and usually they respond at some point (sometimes well after the information was needed, but the response is still appreciated). If I need a quick response and an email isn’t eliciting it, I invoke what I do for the execs: either put some time on their calendar or swing by their humble office abode.

  2. Krystina M Henley

    This was so helpful. Thank you!

  3. Verna Yiu

    the reason for the slow reply could also be that it takes time to gather a response when it is not a simple question – that is usually the case for myself

    1. Nicholas Moore

      True, however the anticipating sender – seeing zero in reply, feels ignored and/or not worthy of reply, so a “I have this and will reply soon” or similar is quick and goes a very long way in the spirit of solid, effective communication.

      1. Rk

        That is exactly it,Nicholas. Those are my thoughts as well!

  4. Judy Kehoe

    I find framing a request as a positive frequently gets a response. “As soon as I get your go ahead, I will move forward with the proposal.”

  5. Jackie M

    There are so many reasons a leader may not respond within a time frame needed/desired. Here are a few thoughts:

    1. More often assume good, or at least neutral, intent when a response isn’t received. Maybe the leader simply hasn’t read all their emails yet
    2. Consider the possibility the leader(s) may not have the answer or the info right at the moment an email is sent (the quarterly Board Meeting hasn’t occurred; the budget process is delayed; a project is behind and the info isn’t clear; etc)
    3. The leader(s) may not be able to put the answer in writing and then later be held to it as concrete when it is actually still fluid at the time of the email
    4. There may be factors involved that are known only within the C-suite, are not necessarily personal, but yet not for public knowledge
    5. It’s just business, everyone is busy and may have timelines that don’t have the email answer included. Separate emotion from the work and don’t let yourself get caught up in making it personal. It takes practice to keep the noise out of our heads

    Kate C’s answer is a great solution – just go have a face to face conversation. Email is quick, and we all use it. But how many emails are in the leader’s inbox and have they read them all? There’s less room for misinterpretation with a face to face conversation!

  6. Bill

    This was a few years ago, our then-HR director at a site of a major corporation with over 1,000 employees “didn’t do email.” So every message sent to him was like sending it to a black hole. No idea if he read/answered emails from VP’s. This was unacceptable in today’s corporate world, a significant inconvenience to the many managers who needed input.

  7. Laura Colby

    This is a very tricky situation, bemoaned by many at my organization! Here’s what I’ve come up with.
    – Always include a timeline for the response you are expecting. That provides the execs an idea of your deadline.
    – Outline your questions/needs clearly in a numbered list. Bold face key words or phrases.
    – Start with a fun, genuine pleasantry but avoid fluff. Cut to the chase. Make your emails something they look forward to reading.
    – Set a calendar reminder for yourself for when it’s time to circle back and reapproach – this time, in person.

  8. Dr. Kate C.

    My work is 100% remote, so I can’t “drop by” anyone’s office (although I used that technique when I was at an in-person job, like Kate C). I deal with folks across the country, in different programs, and with ‘roughly’ aligned priorities.

    When I have an action I need someone to take, or information I need them to share, I have found the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) format works for our organizational leaders. I have a clear “ask” in the BLUF section and the timeline on which the information is needed. After BLUF I can then go into details with Background and explain the situation, why the information is needed, and the impact it will have on next steps. For busy leadership, having a clear ask up front helps them prioritize and know whether the email should be forwarded/shared with others on their team for the response.

    When I don’t get a response I’ll send a “gentle nudge” email. If I have to get answers and email isn’t working I’ll then send an IM asking the person to dig my email out of what I am sure is a very-full inbox and send a response.

    I’ve been in the role for 3 years and this has worked in almost every case.

    1. Kristin B

      This was super helpful, thank you, Dr. Kate. I find getting a lot of important information to leaders is a challenge, but BLUF can help clarify and focus the info.

  9. Summer G

    An easy and quick thing that often works for me is in to start my subject line of the email with “Response Requested” before I type the rest of the subject line. This lets my reader know this is not simply an informative email, but that I need their feedback to move forward.

    1. Summer 2

      I do this too, but I add the due date in the subject line. This brings people’s attention to it and helps them organize their email.

  10. Kobi Varner

    This is rampant where I work therefore it appears to be the culture. It is hard to understand or justify all of the excuses, when often I see leaders “cherry pick” what they will respond to swiftly versus what they will not.

    I take advantage of the follow up and reminder features in Outlook. They will prompt both the sender and recipient to follow up or take action by X/X/X date. In addition, if the email requires a response, I include: “input needed” behind the title, in the subject line. If it is simply an FYI, I include: “no action required” in the subject line. This allows busy leaders and executives to assess importance from glancing at the subject line vs. opening the entire message. Finally, if it is a super urgent matter, I may text the recipient, nudging him/her to reply (provided, we have agreed to that beforehand).

    With that said, I have also been on the side of not replying as quickly as others would like/need so I understand the demands of higher-level leadership. I have explained to my team that if it is urgent, please text me and if it is super-urgent, call me. If I am in a meeting and I see someone calling more than 1 time, consecutively, I know it is urgent and will step out to take the call or let them know I am tied up and will call back shortly.

  11. JJ

    One thing I’ve seen that often leads to no response is sending an email with several people copied and not specifying who should respond. Oftentimes, each person assumes someone else will respond, and so no one responds. I see this all the time.
    I’ve started very clearly asking specific people questions in my emails where several people are copied (ex. Tom – can you provide me with info on this?). This tends to get me an actual response, when the task of responding has been clearly assigned to someone.
    If I’m not sure who the right person is, I simply ask someone and then ask them to let me know if there’s a better person to ask. Either way, it gets the ball rolling. This is what has worked well for me.

  12. Summer 2

    I noticed that the post mentioned sending requests to “teams.” I’ve found that sending a request for a response to a whole team can end with everyone thinking someone else will respond or has already responded. In this scenario, I like to give specifics such as, “I need three responses by this date. Please reply all so everyone can see who has already responded.” Alternatively, you could have people vote whether they will respond and then confirm only with those folks.

  13. Daniel Richard Walton

    I’ve had better success than some of my peers getting responses from a particular member of leadership because I would send an email with info that they would need to make a decision, give them a day or two (would not get any response during this time), and then I’d stop by their office. I’d bring the recommendation that I thought was best given past precidents and policy, and would verbally refer back to the email I had sent. This only worked with one member of leadership, and failed with others.

  14. Anna P.

    I am (sometimes) that boss who doesn’t reply. Things that help me reply:
    – be clear what you are asking and to whom. It was mentioned before, if several people are cc’d and my name isn’t explicitly assigned to a question I assume someone else is on it and I’m cc’d for my info.
    – be clear on when you need the response, if it’s less than a day or two then email is not the right tool; call, text, or see me in person.
    – tell me the path you’ve already taken prior to asking me. This helps me not send you back to where you’ve been to continue you on the goose chase. It also helps me to understand what efforts you’ve already put in and what your base understanding is. I’m far more keen to help someone whose put in some effort and is truly stuck, than someone looking for me to do their job for them.
    – and then remember, I’m busy, and have my own priority list. Just because it’s important to you doesn’t mean that it will impact my own todo list, your email has to help make me care enough to add some priority to it. Tell me what is it holding up, what will it impact, why is this worthy of my time? The old joke being that poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine….

    After all that, I might just miss your email in the masses, remind me, at most once by email, but really a call or a drop by chat is probably more effective and the best way to have my attention is to book a meeting, just a short one please!

  15. Jim Krasas

    The one thing you leave out is a leader does not want to manage to the level of their responsibility. I would have a manager who did not want anything in an email to avoid accountability of an issue. I would send an email and he would respond with a phone call. We would discuss an issue on the phone and later on he would deny having stated things in the conversation when questioned. To remedy this situation, I would type up a summary of the call in an email with the message stating – this is the summary of our conversation, if there are issues with my understanding of the conversation please respond or I will assume that the summary is correct.

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