Getting a Response from the Unresponsive

Written by lewsauder

July 17, 2020

Getting a response from the unresponsive

Project managers often bemoan that their responsibility outweighs their authority. It is never so true when trying to get a response from the unresponsive.

It may be a team member, or a remote stakeholder that you are dealing with. It has happened to me many times. I have emailed someone asking for a report, or a piece of information. I have asked people to report back a decision from a meeting they attended. Despite numerous follow-ups the response is crickets. It can be frustrating. Without authority over that person, it can be a lesson in diplomacy trying to get that information

Reasons they might be unresponsive

Different people have different motivations – and demotivations. Let’s look at some of the reasons people don’t respond:

They’re too busy – Everyone is spread thin these days. They have meetings back to back from morning until the end of the day. Meanwhile, emails fill the queue all day – and even during the night. Keeping one’s head above water is difficult. When you don’ have time to go to the bathroom, some unknown project manager’s request can just wait.

They don’t care – Some folks feel that information is power. If someone wants information, there better be something given in return. As a project manager, the only thing we can often provide is a quality project on time and under budget. The unresponsive person you are dealing with may not be a stakeholder that reaps any benefit from that. And they may be looking for more benefit anyway.

Additionally, some people just see the world from their own perspective. A project manager asking for information may be synonymous with a telemarketer calling at dinner time.

They don’t understand the priority – Similar to not caring, they do not understand the value of their information. In their busy world where they are simply trying to catch up on everything they need to do for their own career, they do not understand why you are asking for information. They do not understand the value to you.

Politics – Similar to the knowledge is power approach, some people have ulterior motives. They understand why you need the information. They understand the value to the project. But they may see the project as an threat. Maybe it jeopardizes their job. Maybe it will adversely affect their staff. It may benefit someone they are competing for on the corporate ladder. While they would never sabotage the project, they certainly are not going to do anything to aid and abet its success.

It can be very helpful to understand the person’s motivation in order to get the information. Based on some of these motivations, here are some tactics to get a response from the unresponsive:

Explain why it is important

If the person you are trying to get a response from does not understand why you want it, they are not likely to prioritize it among the plethora of tasks they have. Tell them how critical the information is. Tell them the impact to the project if you are unable to get that information. Some people, once they realize the importance, will happily provide the information.

Follow up every day and a half

Some folks need some prompting. I have been guilty of that myself. I have gotten emails and said to myself, “That’s a good question. I’ll get back to them when I have time.” I keep it in my inbox until I get to it. Unfortunately, it gets buried in the inbox and I never get to it. If they follow up, I appreciate the reminder and will usually prioritize it.

I find that following up every day and a half is a good gap between letting it sit to long and nagging them before they get a chance to respond. This may vary based on how time-critical the information is.

Include someone that has part of the information

Sometimes, someone on that person’s team may have a portion, or some related information. I will sometimes copy that person to try to get the ball rolling. Often, the alternate will provide their information and say something like, “That’s as much as I know about it.” The key information provider will sometimes jump in and provide the rest of the story. I find this works for two reasons. First, the alternate person provided part of the information and made the follow up easier. Secondly, it makes the primary information provider feel a little more important since they had the key information.

Subtle escalation

I try to make full escalation to the person’s superior one of my last resorts. This can make that person look bad in front of their boss. That creates bad will and can result in even less cooperation in the future. I try to give as much time and persistence as possible using the other techniques before I throw the person under the bus.

But sometimes you can escalate it a bit more subtly. If you have a chance meeting or are on a call with that person and their boss, you can casually mention, “Bob, were you ever able to get that report I asked for?” It is less of an escalation than simply reminding that person in front of their boss. It is not directed towards the boss and not asking the boss to get involved. But it at least makes the boss aware that their person owes you some information.

Get it somewhere else

Before you feel like you are beating your head against the wall, it may be best to see if you can find the information elsewhere. Was anyone else in the meeting? Does someone else have access to the report you need? You may need to ask around for some of this, but it may be worth the time and effort if you cannot get a response from the unresponsive person.

Escalation

If you are dealing with a political environment, or someone who is simply obstinate, you may have no other option. If this person has information you need and is not sharing it, and you cannot get the information anywhere else, you may need to send an email directly to the unresponsive person’s superior and spell it out. Make sure to copy the person you are reporting. That may be just the thing that will get it done. They may respond immediately to show the boss they are responding before the boss has to get involved any further.

How have you gotten a response from the unresponsive stakeholder?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of num_skyman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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