You might think that sending work emails is the worst. It’s not. It’s the second-worst. The worst is waiting for people to reply to your work emails. And some people just never reply, no matter how much you follow up. IT professional Antoinette Maria wrote about one of these problem co-workers, “Alex,” a contact from another team who’s holding up a whole project.
Alex won’t answer my emails asking about getting the integration set up. I’ve sent a follow up email every day for the past 3 days and on the last email I cc’d our project manager and my leader. I’m beyond frustrated at this point, because this isn’t this first time Alex has done this.
Commenters suggested a variety of tactics, some carrot, some stick, which might help you deal with the Alexs in your workplace.
Boil down your request
One of the hardest things about answering an email is processing the information and figuring out how you’re supposed to respond. Web developer Chris Raser suggests stripping out any need for that analysis:
Be super-concrete in your email about what you need from Alex: “Can you please set up new login credentials for the Frob service, and whitelist IP 22.214.171.124? Thanks in advance!” The less analysis Alex needs to do, the more likely they are to take action. I generally send a bullet-point list of what I need.
Bring in the boss
Alex did finally answer Antoinette, after she CC’d her leader and project manager. Bringing your boss into the conversation can be a risky move, because however you present it, everyone will know you’re snitching.
So do it as soon as possible. As Will Smith once said, the time to go to a couple’s counselor is when you’re still happy. Make a habit of CC’ing bosses from the start, or at least on any thread with a potential for tension. Then, when they do need to intervene, it feels more natural, and not as a failure of the usual process.
Of course, now your boss will be getting a bunch of extra emails, but that’s their job.
Switch modes of communication
Can you Slack? Can you text? Can you call? Is your Alex more likely to respond to these methods? Try one. But only one.
Obviously, leaving unanswered messages on email and another platform, no matter how justified, makes you seem a bit crazed. So be careful. Apologise for the intrusion, or give an excuse for switching modes. And that’s important, you’re “switching,” not “piling on until Alex cries.”
So: “Hi! Switching to Slack so we can break this task down better.” Or: “Switching to text just so we can whip this thing together by the deadline.” Or: “Hey Alex! I called cause we can probably fix this without a million emails.” Don’t leave a voicemail though. Voicemail is just email but worse.
Developer Patrick Minton suggests using a more formalized process system, like your team’s Trello, JIRA, editorial calendar, or any other shared resource. That helps frame the problem as a task to complete, not as a “conflict” between you and your recipient. It also puts the problem in front of your team and your boss.
Get face to face
On the other hand, email is already a stand-offish mode of communication, and escalating to superiors can ratchet up the hostility. You might need to hit the reset button. Chris suggests:
You need to figure out what emotional reason they have for ignoring you, and get them past it. Go in person, and bearing gifts, and make Alex really feel that they’re appreciated, and that you’re grateful for their help. This helps defuse a multitude of psychological/emotional blockages.
If you can’t get face to face, at least try easing tensions in your email: “Hi Alex! Sorry about all these requests, this is just a really important project.” Swallow your pride and indignation, and be friendly. You need to make replying feel less stressful than not replying.
By being friendly, you’re also giving your Alex a reset button, a debt forgiveness. If you’re just cornering them, they will find it even harder to reverse course, like a rat, or a teen, or Macbeth.
Whatever approach you take, remember that you’ll probably have to deal with this person again. The happier everyone comes away from this, the easier it will be next time. Until the day you quit, or Alex gets fired.