This column will be Al Switzler’s last. He is transitioning to a more advisory role and will be supporting some of our non-profit efforts. We will be introducing new thought leaders in coming issues of Crucial Skills.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What do I do about a supervisor who doesn’t respond to or acknowledge e-mails and other correspondence from me? I even use the “read receipt” which indicates that it was read, but still no response.
Awaiting a Response
When I read questions like this, I sense frustration, self-doubt, and difficulty in restraining your anger. But before I respond to your question, let me start with a caveat. Every situation varies. Since I know so little of the specifics, history, and stressors, I’m shooting in the dark a bit. But, hopefully you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt if I have guessed incorrectly.
With this in mind, I’d like to insert your question into a bucket that contains other similar questions and challenges:
• “What do I do when my supervisor makes a commitment to involve me in decisions and then doesn’t? I feel uncomfortable chasing her down all the time.”
• “How do I respond if someone I work with goes to radio silence—someone from whom I need information, help, or approval?”
And so I will offer three tactics for responding to these kinds of challenges.
1. Start with Heart. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. You have some history with the other person. You know how long this has been going on. You could explain how many times you’ve tried to talk with your supervisor about his or her unwillingness to respond. I’d say that, in one way, regardless of the background, you should start by asking the “humanizing question” with a twist. The humanizing question is this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This is an invitation for your brain and emotions to engage in an empathy exercise. What could be going on with your supervisor? What stress is s/he experiencing? In what ways could you be part of the problem? And here is the twist: In what ways could you be part of the solution?
Allow me to speculate here. Could it be that your supervisor is facing tons of stress from above and is acting as a buffer between you and the stress? Could it be that your supervisor gets 547 e-mails per day and is simply swamped? Insert all the empathetic responses you can think of here. Then create a plan to be helpful. You might go to him or her and ask if it would be possible for you to send fewer e-mails by setting a weekly (or daily) five-minute meeting to keep your projects speeding along and to keep him or her informed. Together, you will need to work out the specifics. But I think the principle is sound. Begin with empathy, find the key barriers, and then try to be part of a solution—rather than maintaining the stance that your supervisor is the problem.
2. Clarify the workflow. Often when there is a struggle in a relationship, it’s because the people involved are dependent on one another for many actions—sometimes too many. For example, what do you need from your supervisor and what does your supervisor need from you? Do you need updates or approvals? Delays cause you grief and radio silence has you sitting on your hands. Does your supervisor need trust and predictability? Is this a complicated project that has your supervisor juggling seventeen balls with little time left over to answer e-mails? The conversation you might have is about empowerment—getting more on your plate and less on your supervisor’s. Go to your supervisor with a plan for how you might streamline your work in a way that continues to give the supervisor increased trust and predictability.
Years ago, we worked with an organization that had hundreds of forms requiring anywhere from four to fourteen signatures for approval. Our analysis found that any signatures above the first four were redundant—people signed the form simply because the person before them signed it. They reduced the number of signatures dramatically and thus reduced the waiting time between approvals. You might go in with a proposal, in question form, about moving more of the approvals to you. Additionally, show how you would keep the supervisor informed and when and how you would deal with exceptions. Such a discussion would make you part of the solution.
3. Talk about the real issue. I saved this for last with good reason. Sometimes we don’t feel we can talk about the real issue without trying other tactics first, so I’ve led with them. However, I stress that this may be the first tactic. The real issue with your supervisor is not that s/he is not responsive. The real issue is that there is a pattern adversely affecting the quantity and quality of your work. Sometimes the assumptions we make about our supervisor and our relationship keeps us from the real discussion. Generally, I’d suggest that reframe your assumptions and find a way to talk about this pattern. Select a good time and a private location. It might go something like this: “I’m finding a consistent need to get information or approvals from you but then have to wait on the messages I send. I’d like to talk about what we might do to make this process more efficient so the projects can proceed smoothly. Would that be okay?” The two of you can share ideas and make a plan. If that doesn’t happen, I would also have a script prepared where you could talk about your Mutual Purpose—you aren’t trying to cause more stress but trying to find solutions that would make it easier for your supervisor while allowing you to get your work done more quickly and efficiently. I would then suggest tactics like the two detailed above. I like going into any crucial conversation not only prepared for the topic at hand, but also with several other strategies to use if the first plan doesn’t work.
Will it work? I don’t know. Will the situation improve if you do nothing? I doubt it; it seldom does. Do you have enough tactics and scripts and enough Mutual Purpose and respect to engage in the conversation and feel confident that some progress will be made? Absolutely.
I wish you the best,