How to Work With Unresponsive Coworkers

Nov 3, 2015
6 Min Read

Ever worked with someone who rarely responded to requests for input or approval, even when you needed a response in order to move your own work forward? Do your requests seem to fall into a black hole? Working with unresponsive colleagues can be incredibly frustrating and can stymy your own productivity if you don’t find a way to work around them.

But all is not lost! Here are five ways to deal with unresponsive colleagues and get what you need.

1. Make it easy for the person to give you a quick answer. Some people put off responding to requests because it looks time-consuming and they figure they’ll do it later (and then often just never come back to it). You can sometimes head this off by making it really easy for them to give you a quick response. For example, try to ask yes/no questions, so the person can respond quickly. (One thing that will help with that is giving a quick proposal and “does that sounds okay to you?” rather than an open-ended “what should we do about X?”) And keep emails short so the person doesn’t have to wade through dense paragraphs.

2. Schedule time on their calendar. Send a meeting request for 15 minutes, or work with the person’s assistant (if they have one) to get a short block of time on their calendar. Then you can ask for what you need while you’re sitting right in front of the person.

3. Propose a course of action you’ll take if you don’t hear back. This won’t work in all situations, but often it’s fine to say “If I don’t hear back from you by Monday, I’ll plan to propose X to the client so that we stay on schedule” (or send the file to the printer, or book the tickets, or whatever makes sense in context). The key to doing this is that you have to give a reasonable amount of time for the person to respond; “if I don’t hear back within an hour” isn’t reasonable unless it’s a true emergency. You usually need to give at least a few days when using this tactic so that the person truly does have time to say, “Wait, don’t do that.” (And of course, make sure your statement isn’t buried in a long email they might not even read.)

4. Try a different method of communication. Sometimes I talk to people who complain that a coworker never responds to their emails, but when I ask if they’ve tried calling or talking in person, the answer is no. While yes, people should respond to their emails, if you need an answer from someone who doesn’t, it’s time to try another method of communication. Pick up the phone, and see if that solves it.

5. Ask the person directly how you should handle it. If you chronically have trouble getting responses from someone, ask for their help! Say something like, “I’ve noticed that I often don’t hear back from you about requests I send in email – is there something you’d like me to do differently when I have things I need from you?” At a minimum, this will call the person’s attention to the problem, but you might also get insight that you can use – such as that their inbox is overflowing and you should stop by in person for anything important, or that you can flag action items in the subject line, or they’re able to field emails more quickly in the mornings, or who knows what else. Raise the issue (politely) and ask!

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