360° Answers: How Can I Get Faster Responses from My Colleagues?

May 22, 2012
12 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here's the question, with our experts' responses below:

"How should I approach it when I need to chase down my fellow colleagues and manager about matters that require their prompt assistance and attention? For instance, my senior colleague, who is based in another state, usually emails me to follow-up on certain issues that require clearance on my end, that is, I need to obtain approval from my boss. But despite sending 1-2 email follow-up emails to my boss asking for his approval on the issue on hand, every time I check in with him (face-to-face) his reply is, "I haven't seen it yet." How do I go about asking him to please take a look at my email that contains some editorial feedback from him before I can forward it down to my senior colleague?

Honestly, I have been "complained" about once or twice by my colleagues to my direct supervisor that I had been too "fierce" when it comes to asking them to reply me on certain emails. Since then, I have toned down my way of asking them things, but it hasn't brought much good to me either, since they're not taking my requests seriously when I'm very nice about it. Please help me out here!"

From Alexandra Levit...

I feel for you as unresponsive colleagues were one of my biggest pet peeves about working in an established company.  The first thing I would do is look carefully at the way you are wording your e-mails.  You don't want to be too demanding (or fierce, as you say), but you also need to be direct.  This means clearly delineating what you need, when you need it by, and the practical consequences of not meeting the deadline. Think of what would make the person want to respond to you promptly, and phrase your request in that matter. For example, if your boss is all about great customer service, you might say:  "Customer X seems really eager to receive this and I'd like to get it back to him while his attention is focused on it."

You can also mention that you are happy to stop by to get the answer if he or she is too busy to respond in an e-mail.  Along those lines, sometimes it helps to set up a meeting with the unresponsive person expressly for the purpose of reviewing the document in question.  That way, you can get the feedback you need right on the spot.  And finally, it can never hurt to include read receipts and follow up flags on your internal messages.  These tools help you and the unresponsive colleague to keep track of what has been seen and what needs a response.

In the long run, it may be appropriate to revisit this approval process entirely and assess whether there is too much red tape involved and whether everyone is empowered to do their jobs effectively. For instance, perhaps it would make sense for your out-of-state colleague to communicate directly with your boss so that you are not unnecessarily put in the middle.

From Alison Green...

Here are a few tips that might help:

1. Be direct and specific about what you need, with a timeline attached. For instance, "Could you give me your okay on this draft by close of business Thursday?"  You can also try explaining why it's time-sensitive, e.g., "I need to get back to the vendor by Friday morning in order to get the early-bird discount, so could you let me know no later than Thursday?"

2. Make it as easy as possible for people to respond to you quickly. Ask yes/no questions, keep emails short, and provide a quick proposal so that people can respond quickly with a yes or no. If you write, "How do you want to handle this?" your recipient needs to spend time writing out a detailed response -- and is more likely to put the email aside for later (and maybe never come back to it). But if you write "I propose we do X. Does that sound okay to you?" then the person can simply write back with "yes" or no" -- so you're more likely to get a quick answer.

3. In some cases, it's appropriate to say, "If I don't hear from you by the end of the week, I'll plan to do X." If you take this route, make sure to give the person a reasonable amount of time to respond (not, say, two hours), and don't do it if the stakes are very high.

4. If you're still not getting the responses you need, talk to people about it in a non-accusatory way. Say something like, "I've noticed that you're not always able to get back to me in the timeframes that I need on my end to move work along. Is there a different way you'd like me to handle these things?" You may find out that they'd prefer a phone call, or for you to stick your head in their office. Not everyone is an email person, or as organized as they should be!

5. If none of the above works, talk to your boss. Explain the issue and ask for advice on how you can get what you need without being overly aggressive.

From Anita Bruzzese...

For colleagues, part of the issue may be that your emails are simply overwhelming and they don’t want to deal with them. I’d remember to keep them concise. That means you say exactly what you need, why you need it and the date you need it by. I would also boldface and underline the due date. Then, set reminders to follow up in a day.  Something else to ask yourself: Am I sending emails when I could just stick my head around the corner and ask a question? Your co-workers may prefer a 10-second question from you in person rather than slogging through a long email they know will take 20 minutes to digest.

As for your boss not responding, this gets a lot trickier. Most bosses are inundated with emails. They get cc’d on just about everything, and they often don’t respond to emails until their backs are against the wall. However, most live and die by their calendars. I would try and get your due dates put on his/her calendar – you can do this either through an assistant or through an online calendar like Google. I would also see if you can’t get the office connected to some kind of collaborative system. Check out this post I did on social collaboration and idea sharing. This would make it easier for everyone to track the progress of a project. I’m not sure why you’re getting caught in the middle of this issue between the senior colleague and your boss, but I would always cc your colleague in reminder notes to your boss so that she’s aware of your efforts. Honestly, it may be time to step out of the way and let the two of them handle the time crunch issue.

From Eva Rykrsmith...

The first thing I would recommend is setting a deadline for your request. Without a firm date, an ASAP request can mean varied things to different people. Some will rush and get it done within an hour, while others will prioritize other things first and this will fall in their ‘eventually’ pile. In my experience, simply setting a date or time ensures you will get a response sooner. It also makes it easier to follow-up on once the date you set has passed.

My second recommendation is to change the method of communication. Nothing wrong with what you did, but it seems email with an in-person follow-up isn’t getting the best response. Do you have a weekly meeting with your boss where you can request and obtain approval? Or perhaps reverse your strategy—approach him in person and then follow-up by email instead.

Last, mention consequences. What, exactly, will happen if X doesn’t get done by Y? Does it slow down a project? Does your senior colleague miss a client deadline? Nobody likes being the one who drops the ball, so if your manager realizes the negative implications of taking an extra day or two to get around to it, he may shift his priorities to get it done sooner. This is also a good check for yourself to determine if you are, in fact, being overbearing with requests. If consequences don’t change whether your boss responds tomorrow or two weeks from now, let it go.

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