how can I get faster responses from my coworkers and manager?

by Ask a Manager on May 23, 2012

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A reader writes:

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!

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today.

Plus, three other careers experts are answering this question there today too. Head on over there for answers…


Joy May 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I love your #2 suggestion! I will start using that ASAP. Also, #3 is a good idea. In addition to giving at least a few days, I’d follow up with a text or voicemail that you’ve sent a time sensitive email. So many times I’ve heard after the fact “What email?” or “My server’s down!”

Jojo May 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Funny, but I just experience this in the last few days. Sent an email to a (new) coworker last Friday, and got an out of office reply saying she’s out until Monday. Followed up Tuesday afternoon, thinking she’s probably busy catching up on Monday. No news. I called once, no return call. I emailed again last night, and called and left a voice mail today. Still no news until now. I emailed her boss and asked if the person is in, and boss said, yes she is.

I like your suggestion to put in the email: I’ll stop by later today to discuss. Or something to that effect. Some people just don’t know how do simple thing like responding to email or call someone back.

AMG May 23, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Expand I had a boss like that, and I would recap each conversation in an email and say, ‘here was my understanding of our conversation regarding X. If this is not correct or I have misunderstood any part of the discussion, please let me know’. Sad that I had to do that every time, but that’s the way he was.

I am also someone who often has to seek approvals, and I finally just gave up badgering everyone. When there were issues, I would simply say that I hadn’t received the necessary approvals to get the task accomplished, and that I would get it done as soon as they were in place. Everything blew up and got more visibility than the approvers ever wanted, and I no longer have this issue.

blu May 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm

OP is it possible that your boss would extend your authority so that you can get his approval/input on fewer items?

Also, it doesn’t hurt to just make sure that everyone else’s input is truly needed and that your aren’t inundating your colleagues with requests that really don’t require their input.

Anonymous May 24, 2012 at 2:22 am

I have this problem with my boss sometimes. She needs to have final approval on web pages I create. I created a three step process and it works most of the time.
1. When possible, I let her know verbally to expect an email from me and when (“I’m going to email you a link for your approval in about half an hour.”)
2.When I email, I always include some short, fun line at the bottom that will make her want to open the link right away. (“I don’t know what that company was thinking with that logo, wow!”)
3. Right after I email my boss, I email my coworker who is waiting for the page and let them know that the page is out to the boss for final approval. This keeps them in the loop and also makes me feel like I’m not being judged for being slow in getting the page out.

snuck May 24, 2012 at 4:00 am

I used to find (in my project management days) the Outlook tools around setting reminders really helpful – some of my colleagues used Outlook task lists, so I’d ask them if it was ok to add to their lists (which you set up when you send the email), other’s I’d put a followup reminder on (also an Outlook tool, also available in Lotus Notes if I remember correctly), on top of what the experts have recommended: Clear, concise communication about what is needed, by when, by whom.

I’d also send out the emails to a group if it was a group thing – with each person having their own paragraph and their names bolded “Jackie : follow up on orders and reciepting before next meeting – Monday
Fred: Confirm roll out date of X by next Monday” etc
so there was no confusion who was to do what, and the whole group who was doing what – so that if someone was sick we knew what had to be picked up, and if someone dropped the ball it was obvious who it was – peer pressure WIN.

If people were really tardy about their ‘to do’ lists that is when I’d send them a personal email reminder a few days before hand “Hey Jackie, just checking if you are on track for Monday – let me know if you need a hand with anything by lunchtime Friday so I have time to help you” and put that outlook popup reminder on it…

Anonymous May 24, 2012 at 5:40 am

I have been dealing with this for the past week. I was just about to send AAM an email. What a weird coincidence.

Bonnie May 24, 2012 at 8:28 am

I’m a big advocate of #3. I think sometimes when approvals are just rubberstamped bosses don’t read and respond out of a lack of urgency. If they know you are unlikely to make an error even if you have to take action without them, some of their urgency can disappear. If you are always asking for approvals, there are rarely changes as a result of the boss reading the information, then the system should probably be changed from an approval system to simply an update. But some bosses don’t want to give up the control.

Anon May 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

This was a chronic problem in my last position, where we needed editorial approval from high-level execs to publish anything. I tried everything! Including due dates, padding schedules, giving precise and simple questions they could answer, listing the consequences of their not responding on time (missing publication deadlines, increased print costs, paying overtime to half the team who had to implement their changes, etc.)…nothing worked. If I gave them them three weeks, they took four. If I gave them a shorter window, so it couldn’t be put on the back burner, they still returned the work past the deadline. I even tried redesigning the entire approval process to eliminate steps, but they refused to do anything differently. I eventually realized that the powers that be just didn’t care at all about other people’s time, or the extra expenses they were causing, or even the effect that their tardiness had on quality, and it was a cultural issue I could do nothing about. So I left.

Anonymous May 24, 2012 at 11:36 am

Its a chronic problem where I am now.

No one really wants to deal with my stuff because if I do get my answers it usually means a piece of paper goes to management saying X and Y happened, this is why we think it happened, this is what we’ve done to stop it happening again, this is what it cost us.

Its my job and it doesn’t make me popular. I rarely get to say something nice or good to someone – usually if I am reaching out and talking to people something has gone wrong.

I’ve ended up doing a bit more of the job by going to speak to someone directly to try to soften the blow and assure them that there are no accusations involved – just information gathering.

Anonymous May 24, 2012 at 11:39 am

When I find a person who the verbal approach doesn’t work for repetitively I do end up going to manager who needs the information and saying “I’ve tried to get information on X this many times and I’m not getting it”.

I still have a few issues that haven’t got solved even after that!

Jamie May 24, 2012 at 11:47 am

It doesn’t work in every work culture, but standardized time lines for escalation can really help with this – because you’re following procedures, not going over heads for sport.

I set up the internal audit process to give recipients of corrective action requests 2 weeks to address the issue/respond to their auditor and one week for the auditor to validate the solution and close the CAR. Requests for follow up after this time are cc’ed to their manager and the COO – no exceptions. This results in very few deadlines being missed, because it’s procedural – not personal.

A formal policy of escalation isn’t appropriate in every instance, but if you escalate without emotion and do it with a consistent manner it can set a tone.

YMMV – this won’t work where the culture prides itself on being informal and casual.

Student May 24, 2012 at 11:54 am

Some people just don’t respond well to certain communication styles, like email. I suggest you go with the last respondent’s suggestion to try a different approach, and go with AAM’s suggestion to ask directly what communication method would work best.

If dropping off an old-fashioned, paper copy of the request into an inbox is what gets things done, then that’s what you have to do. If it’s phone calls, instant messaging, text messaging, in-person office visits, or weekly meetings, then that’s what you have to do.

If it’s faxes or paging though, run back to the DeLorean before you damage the timeline.

Also consider asking you boss for the authority to approve some of this stuff on your own if you feel even remotely confident that you can make the appropriate judgement calls. He might be relieved to have some stuff off of his immediate to-do list.

Sara May 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Ugh, I totally have this problem with my boss. In my case he can’t be bothered to read my emails in their entirety, or at all. This applies even to emails that are replies to his emails, emails I warn him I am going to send, and emails that follow up on meetings we just had. He once said to me, “I don’t have time to read every email I get.”

I don’t send long emails – usually they are numbered lists of highlights (2-4 items), but he won’t read beyond item 1. Sometimes I will use bold or highlighted text to draw his attention to a really important part, and he still misses it.

In-person conversations are no better, because he doesn’t remember anything we talk about. I’ve tried sending post-meeting summary emails to document what we talked about, but that doesn’t help because he will still deny the conversation took place later if it suits him (plus he doesn’t read the email anyway). I’ve sent him emails with previous emails attached to document decisions he’s made, and then had meetings with him to go over them, and he still denies the decisions were made! Stopping by immediately after I send emails has been the most effective (not foolproof), but he is almost never in his office so this has limited use.

Depending on the subject, it can sometimes be helpful to copy his boss on the email, but that’s not always appropriate.

Anonymous May 28, 2012 at 10:17 am

You need a new boss. Seriously.

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