How to Deal with an Unresponsive Colleague

A reader writes: What do you do when an executive tells you to work with one of his/her subordinates to make something happen, and that person is unresponsive or unreliable?  How do you move forward when it’s so difficult to get this person to collaborate?

I think this person was reading my mind, because I was recently in this exact situation. I met a C-suite executive at a conference who was very eager for her team to incorporate me into a training program for new hires.  Trouble was, I had to coordinate with this executive’s direct report in HR, who wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic.  I was stuck.

For a real-world answer from a real-world pro, I turned to one of my favorite online HR pundits, Alison Green of the Ask a Manager blog, (who is now also writing for this blog) and here was her advice:

I think you have to be straightforward with the person and tell her: “Hey, I’m having trouble getting responses from you (or getting your materials in a timely way, or whatever the issue is), and it’s keeping me from being able to move forward on this project. Is there something I could do differently that would help?”

This way, you put her on notice that there’s a problem. You could also potentially find that there’s something going on that you didn’t know about – she’s swamped with something she has been told is a higher priority, or she just didn’t realize it was a high priority, etc. After that, if the problem continues, I think I’d alert her one more time: “Hey, I know we talked about this before but I’m still not getting the ___ that I need. What can we do differently so that we can move forward on this?”

At that point, you’ve alerted her twice that it’s a problem. If the unresponsiveness continues, you don’t have much choice but to go back to the exec and talk to them about it. I realize this feels like tattling to a lot of people, but I tend to believe that the entire concept of tattling doesn’t really fit in in the workplace. You could even just say something like, “Could you nudge Julie for me? I’m sure she has other things on her plate, but I haven’t been able to get ___ from her.”

This is great advice, and I just have one thought to add. Perhaps try to find out more from the subordinate what her goals are, and communicate a way that your project will help her more easily meet or exceed those goals. She’ll be more likely to cooperate if she sees how she can directly benefit from your proposal. What are some strategies that have worked for you in the past?

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  • I like this. Often times I am asked to stretch my schedule a little further than I am capable. Being upfront and very careful not to excuse myself from participation, it really helps to communicate this to the people I will be working with so they know they can count on me for the things they need me to accomplish, but to have patience with me as I have other projects that are just as/more critical.

  • Anonymous

    Michael, excellent to hear a perspective from the other side, and it sounds like you are handling the situation in the most professional way.  Open communication really is key.

  • Sabrina

    What advice would you give someone when the unresponsive person they need to work with is their boss?

    • Me

      I’d like to know the answer to this, too!

    • Anonymous

      Sabrina and “Me:”  My advice is more or less the same as what I suggest in the last paragraph.  Your boss is being unresponsive because whatever you are working on is not at the top of her priority list.  You have to find out what IS at the top of that list, and connect your work to that so it’s more likely to get his attention.

  • Jackie

    This is very good advice assuming your aren’t dealing with a crazy.

    • Anonymous

      I think that even when you’re dealing with a crazy, calling attention to the fact that they are acting this way might shock them into better behavior.  At least that’s what happened the last time I sat down and laid it on the table with my unbalanced colleague. 

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